What I learnt about grief during a global pandemic

What I learnt about grief during a global pandemic

When COVID-19 became a global pandemic and the Australian interstate borders were closed, a part of me expected that grief and loss would be a part of my journey through the COVID world.

My grandfather had been unwell for quite some time and over the past few months there had been a number of updates about him being admitted to hospital, and then to finally be placed in palliative care. Every time my phone would ring with my dad on the other end, I would wonder, is this it? There were even times when I battled in my own mind whether to answer or not.

The call did come, at 9:55am on a Saturday. I knew it had happened before even answering the phone. In an instant, the world changed. The only grandfather I had ever really known, was gone. It was strange to try and integrate into my understanding that I would never see him again. Add to this, being on the other side of the country from most of my family and loved ones and restricted from entering my home state. 

Upon reflection of the last few weeks, there have been a number of learnings that I have taken. Here I will share some of these with you, particularly those of you who might be finding yourself in a similar position. 

The reality of mourning

We had been anticipating my grandfather’s passing for a number of years. His death was not unexpected in any way. I was grateful to have said my final goodbye to him in person at Christmas time. Despite this however, I was surprised at what I experienced in the week between his passing and his funeral. I felt numb, more than expected. I was on the verge of tears or in tears multiple times a day, every day that week. It was hard to concentrate on paperwork. The housework didn’t get done. There were days that I wasn’t actively engaged in work that I lost chunks of time. 

As human beings, we are wired for connection and as someone who has built a life and career on connecting with others, not being able to connect with and comfort my family in my own way was heartbreaking. Whilst I can’t say that my grief in the COVID world was better, worse or the same as grief in days gone by, what I did realise is that having the awareness of my grandfather’s impending death did not protect me against my mourning. It was tough, and that’s ok. 

It helped to see the choice point and practice acceptance

What was perhaps unique to the current state of the world during this pandemic was the intense struggle that I went through in trying to decide whether or not to fly home and attend the funeral or to remain where I was. In the hours immediately following the news, this internal conflict was debilitating at times and complicated with guilt and sprinkles of shame at not being there.

Somewhere in there, I realised that this was a choice point for me. I could choose to be angry and miserable and rant and rave about how much I hated this pandemic and the situation I found myself in. Or, I could choose to accept the situation for what it was and find ways to make the most of what I could. I chose to stream the funeral from my home. The moment I realised that the volume of my TV could not go any higher and that the audio was cutting in and out was again another choice point. Getting mad and distraught about the quality of the stream was a possibility and in effect would possibly see me finding the whole experience truly awful. I again, chose acceptance of what was, and despite the poor quality was able to fully engage with and farewell my grandfather. I might not have heard every word, or each note of his favourite song, but I was fully present. 

The importance of staying connected

Death can often bring people together and enables people to support and care for one another. When there is a whole country or half a world between you and your loved ones, and are restricted by this pandemic, it could be easy to become isolated in grief. This isolation can then serve to exacerbate grief reactions. I learnt that I had to give myself permission to not be ok so that I could then reach out to someone.

I learnt that I didn’t have to say that I was ‘fine’ or ‘as good as can be expected’. It was ok to say, ‘this really sucks’. I reached out and that helped. On the day of the funeral, my sister and I had multiple video calls, during some of which she would hand me around to my parents, my cousins, my grandma and old family friends. Whilst I wasn’t there in person, I was there in my own way and that felt good. 

Find your own way to say goodbye

Attending the funeral of a loved one can be an important step in the grieving process. The point at which that particular chapter of the relationship is closed. Once I decided not to travel for the funeral, I set about finding my own way to acknowledge my grandfather’s passing. I wrote a letter to my grandmother. My now only living grandparent. I shared with her memories of my grandfather and other memories from my life with them. This allowed me to connect with her in a way that would have been impossible had I attended the funeral. It also allowed me to process my own personal loss and sort through what felt like a tangled mess in my mind so that I then felt ready to say the final goodbye. 

In the days following his passing, I scrolled through hundreds of quotes and sayings on grief and loss trying to find something that would capture the words that my heart could not yet speak. I found my mind returning again and again to one quote in particular and I realised that I had found it. This quote formed the obituary I then posted in the WA newspaper, a tradition in my family and another way to say goodbye. 

In closing, grief and loss is a normal, universal experience that is an unavoidable part of the human condition. The current global pandemic has affected our world in so many ways, including how we now experience grief and loss. It is ok to not be ok and there are supports out there if you are experiencing distress following the death of a loved one. We here at Haven are here to support you during this time if you would like to reach out. 

In loving memory. 

Written by Jessica Bell (Registered Psychologist and Counselling Psychology Registrar)

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