'A cumulative grief:' Coping with loss in a pandemic

Krista S. Kano
Akron Beacon Journal
Sue Freeman, left, program facilitator, Becky Costello Bulgrin, executive director, and Margaret Warren, program facilitator of the GriefCare Place in front of their reference library for clients at their office Monday, March 8, 2021 in Stow, Ohio.

From hugs and handshakes to elbow bumps and waves, the pandemic has changed how we say hello.

Perhaps more dramatically, it has also changed how we say goodbye, and in particular our final goodbyes. 

Due to state restrictions, many people have been unable to spend those last precious moments with loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes or have been unable to hold "traditional" end-of-life ceremonies. 

Local experts say the absence of those practices that offer comfort and closure, coupled with social isolation and the stress of the pandemic, has changed the way people are grieving and coping with their loss. 

"The grief process itself has just turned into a cumulative grief," said Maria Wentz, a licensed professional counselor with Kelly's Grief Center in Kent. "Losing a loved one changes your whole entire world. It's an adjustment to life without that loved one, an adjustment to who you are without that loved one, and so many other facets of life that have to be adjusted. And on top of it, we've all been in a constant adjustment throughout the year of figuring out what this new world is like."

According to Wentz, there are a multitude of factors affecting how people grieve during the pandemic, but one of the earliest factors people may encounter is losing time with their loved one because they were adhering to social distancing, stay-at-home advisories or hospital restrictions.

"There's feelings of guilt and regret, but it's confusing because they think 'I was doing what I was supposed to [do] to stay safe,'" she said. 

People can also feel sorrow about the missed time and opportunities, which can be compounded when traditional ceremonies are modified or canceled. Whereas many people may expect to be surrounded by loved ones at a wake or funeral, limits on gatherings mean that they are not receiving in-person support. 

"Those traditions provide closure and symbolize the loved one. When it's changed or becomes nonexistent, that in itself amplifies the intensity of confusing and overwhelming emotions," Wentz said. "It amplifies the process of what we consider normal grief and how we grieve and the normal ways we deal with it." 

The loss of traditions and the limited interpersonal support from family, friends, neighbors and even coworkers has prompted some people to turn to grief support groups, like those offered by Kelly's Grief Center, the GriefCare Place in Stow, and Stewart's Caring Place: Cancer Wellness Center in Fairlawn. 

Kelly's initially saw a lot of hesitation to join support groups because of fears surrounding the pandemic and because "searching for groups can be exhausting, and we're already in survival mode because of the pandemic and because of the loss," Wentz said. 

Their virtual support groups have been well-received, and d they have seen requests for individual sessions "skyrocket," leading the center to hire a new counselor to meet the demand, Wentz said.

GriefCare Place executive director Rebecca Costello Bulgrin said that since the stay-at-home orders were issued in March 2020, they have had to limit the size of their peer-led support groups. They have not seen a huge influx of grievers, as many people continue to be weary of leaving their homes and interacting with people outside of their households.

They have, however, seen a big change in when people find them. 

Margaret Warren of Barberton, who facilitates groups for adult losses, said she first came to the GriefCare Place as a griever around eight months after her husband's death in January 2011, but has recently seen grievers at support groups as little as three weeks after their loss.

"Being able to say goodbye and express your love is lacking right now tremendously," Warren said. "I was with [my husband and mother-in-law] in their final days. I was by their side. People aren't able to do that now. For me, the calling hours and the funeral was a tremendous first step in healing, and a year ago, no one could do that and of course you couldn't hug [...] people have postponed celebrations of life and that can end up being harmful because it opens fresh wounds, it's like going back to Step 1." 

Sue Freeman of Kent, who facilitates the GriefCare Place's widows group, agreed that the end-of-life traditions have prolonged the grieving process, something she learned from personal experience after her second husband died in July 2020. 

"There were people who didn't feel comfortable coming to calling hours or the Mass, and I didn't want to delay it. I got calls and notes, and all those things [...] and that makes it more intense because it draws it out," said Freeman, formerly of Tallmadge. 

Other women in her group whose spouses died of COVID have expressed regret of not being able to say a proper goodbye because they were unable to hold hands.

"People are so desperate to connect with someone who understands," she said. 

Stewart's Caring Place has seen a huge increase in the number of families they serve, going from six to eight new families a week before the pandemic, to now 28 new families each week, executive director Jeannine Marks said.

"When things were shutting down for a few weeks, and then we realized that it would stay this way for a while, we had to reimagine how we'd meet people's needs," she said. 

They moved all support groups online, and are now able to serve more people from as far away as Arizona. Due to the success of the virtual programs, Stewart's will continue to offer virtual programs even after the pandemic is over, Marks said. 

"We can now reach people from the comfort of their own home or even when they're in the hospital. The positive is that we've been able to reach them and guide them no matter where they are to give them that comfort or teaching them how to take care of themselves, how to communicate, and how to find the right therapist to meet their needs," she said. 

Kelly's has similarly seen positive aspects of the virtual support groups, namely that when people are connecting with each other and sharing from home, they get to be with their pets who offer additional comfort. 

"The pandemic is isolating, and grief is isolating, so it's so important to connect," Wentz said. "Much of our typical coping techniques and measures have been stripped, but even though it's tough, we humans are so resilient and adaptable, and there are creative methods of getting our needs taken care of."

Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, kkano@thebeaconjournal.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ. 

Additional resources

Kelly's Grief Center, https://www.kellysgriefcenter.org/, 330-593-5959

GriefCare Place, https://thegriefcareplace.org/, 330-686-1750

Stewart's Caring Place: Cancer Wellness Center, https://www.stewartscaringplace.org/, 330-836-1772

What's Your Griefhttps://whatsyourgrief.com/

National Alliance for Grieving Children, https://childrengrieve.org/

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrationhttps://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

6 ways to help someone through grief

  1. Send something: flowers, a home-cooked meal, food from a favorite restaurant through a delivery service, cards, texts, a self-care box
  2. Offer practical support: mow their lawn, shovel their snow, meet them at a park for exercise
  3. Be there as much as possible: send a text, call, write a note, video chat, write a message of support in chalk on their driveway
  4. Help them take a break: watch a funny TV show using Teleparty (formerly Netflix Party), meet up for an outdoor activity
  5. "Go there" with them: sit in their pain with them, validate feelings, let them cry, talk about the person who died
  6. Don't forget: check in on days that may be difficult like birthdays, anniversaries and holidays

Source: What's Your Grief, Kelly's Grief Center