Updated: Jun 1, 2020
According to CDC data, more than 100.000 people have died from COVID 19. The death toll our nation has experienced is only lower than the fatalities suffered from World War II (291,557), and the Civil War (498,332). It is sadly safe to say that we are a Nation in a state of mourning.
As a mental health professional, I am greatly worried about the lack of acknowledgment that we are experiencing a desperate time of collective grief. I imagine the silence about our collective pain might be due to our inability to gather, or because we do not know what to say or do, when faced with death.
Embracing grief and its raw feelings is the kindest and most useful thing to do when we are supporting people who are mourning.
Giving Permission to Mourn
I spent some years in West Africa and often observed how people who had experienced loss wore specific clothes for mourning. In doing that, everyone knew they were grieving. The costumes permitted mourners to express their raw emotions freely. The nature of mourning involves intense outward expressions of pain and sorrow, alone and in the presence of loved ones.
No list of dos and don'ts offers a quick fix to the deep pain of losing a loved one. Each person is unique and so is their grieving process. Yet, I understand that if we are to heal as a Nation, we need to create spaces for our immense collective loss to be felt and processed. The following tips may support you and people in your life to build safe spaces for people who are mourning, even when you cannot be physically present.
1- Create space for friends and family to mourn in your presence.
Many of my clients who experience grief thank me for supporting their healing. Yet, the only thing I did for hours was to allow them to express their feelings and emotions without interruption or judgment. Please do the same for the people in your life. In this time of social distancing, a way to honor a person who is grieving is to permit them to "wear their clothes of sorrow" without feeling self-conscious even when we are connecting online.
2- accept the awkwardness of Mourning.
Cry when you want to. Weep when you need to. Wail if it feels like your heart is being torn apart inside. It is okay.
3- Lose your fear of raw emotions.
Trust the process and allow yourself to go through the tunnel of your raw emotions, trusting that, in the end, your sorrow and pain will be pushed out, rearranged, and will subside. There is a beautiful teaching by the Master of the Christian faith that says: "Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted." The physical and spiritual comfort received from grieving is released only when your emotions are processed. Go through the tunnel of emotions as many times as needed. No one has ever died from crying.
4- Be patient with yourself.
Understand that you are dealing with pain and expending energy to rearrange yourself to the emptiness created by your loss. It is no exact or pretty business. But it is redemptive to be free from carrying the heavy cloak of mourning. There is beauty in surrendering to your process of grieving. It does not need to look like anyone else.
5- Follow holistic care.
Remember grief impacts your whole self. Support your body by sleeping enough, eating healthy, and exercising. Care for your mind by working fewer hours, postpone important decisions, and avoid vicarious exposure to violent content in entertainment. Strengthen your spirit by engaging in spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, and loving people in your life.
6- Embrace these seven ways to support mourners online:
Ask for permission. Is OK to connect with you? Sometimes our compassion makes us forget to respect personal space.
Establish expectations. Say something like “I want to spend time with you,” or “I will be on this call with you for the next 15 minutes,” or “We can be silent.”
Give permission not to talk. If the person who is grieving talks, you respond, otherwise practice presence. Just being there is enough. Do not initiate small talk or busy conversation.
Limit the number of participants. Avoid exposing the person who is grieving to calls with too many people. Interaction through a video call with too many participants requires significant amounts of energy. Assign someone to manage video calls. Outside the funeral, ensure no more than six people connect at the same time with the person who is grieving.
Have a moderator for content. Use time and space to talk about the person who died. For example, what is your best memory of him or her? What were some of their character traits? Do not be afraid about upsetting the person who experienced loss by mentioning the departed.
Normalize crying times or displays of intense emotions. Do not try to distract from intense feelings by making comments. Silence is the best emotion processor.
Slow down. Treat the space for mourning as you treat the atmosphere for a new baby. Grief has the power to overwhelm the brain and the sensory processing system. Everything around mourning needs to soothe the senses.
Please accept that we are experiencing a time of collective grief. Break the silence of death. When our body, mind, and soul have space to mourn, it does what it needs to do for us to heal. We then, after a season of grief, can emerge more resilient, wearing new clothes of joy and love. Because of the courage, we had to acknowledge our collective loss and put on our clothes of mourning when we needed to.