To say that COVID-19 has disoriented all of us is an understatement.
Our worlds—who we see, where we work, what we can expect of the future—have been turned upside down, and the loss we’ve collectively experienced in a short time has been tremendous.
One of the greatest losses is in the way we can grieve people who have died—or, rather, the way the pandemic has complicate the grieving process.
A death of a family member or friend is ordinarily a time to come together. It’s natural to congregate and comfort each other at a time of sorrow, and to reassure ourselves that we are not alone, that there are others bearing this burden with us.
COVID-19 has made that human need difficult to fulfill. It has forced us to separate ourselves from the very people we most need at a time of sorrow.
The virus has also distorted the expectations of how and where we die, it denied us the good death we wish for ourselves and loved ones. We expect to be able to be with our loved ones at the moment of death, holding their hand, playing their favorite music, and doing that at home, or in the company of other people we are close to.
When someone we love dies without us nearby, we are traumatized, and may feel like we’ve abandoned them even though we had no choice. We might feel guilty for circumstances totally beyond our control.
Compounding this trauma is a lack of emotional preparation and of closure. People who were healthy and young were overcome by coronavirus rapidly, and even the elderly had expectations that they were safe and would be surrounded by family if the end was near.
We lost the bedside rites and ritual of death, and funerals were just a few people gathering with masks around a gravesite. It’s much harder for us to process death and for it to feel “real” if there’s a sudden end without the usual markers of passage. No amount of technological innovation, like a Zoom session with people signing in from their homes, can replace in-person rituals and hugs.
So, what can we do with the complicated feelings of grief, guilt, and anxiety during the age of COVID-19? The ordinary mind may be overwhelmed by this situation, and the stress it creates can delay and complicate normal grieving. It doesn’t matter how much we know about the oddity of the world today; if we cannot feel centered internally, we’re going to go into a spiral that worsens the situation for us and for the people around us who need our support.
One way to regain some emotional balance is through mindful breathing which activates our natural healing capacities and reduces stress in the body and mind. The use of slow, deep breath to calm our minds and bodies helps our minds process the loss. It doesn’t cancel out our grief and guilt, but it does give us a feeling of control over our distress and provides a natural healing mechanism for soothing the pain.