Dr. Esslin Terrighena, a chartered psychologist and registered psychotherapist shares 7 tips on grieving from afar
One of the greatest impacts of these unique Covid-19 times may be to our mental health. While we’ve already shared tips on how to stop social media having a negative impact on your mental health and where to get your online fitness fix to boost energy levels while stuck at home, we asked Dr. Esslin Terrighena from Mind-Balance to share her expert tips on grieving from afar.
7 tips on grieving from afar
The outbreak of Covid-19 brings not only pain to those of us losing loved ones, but also impacts how we are able to grieve for our family and friends. With distancing measures, we may lose one of the key elements in grieving: social support. Currently, funeral or grief gatherings are often not permitted or very restricted, or we may be in quarantine, self-isolation or live overseas and cannot fly over to attend.
We may be facing our pain, separated from people who are going through the same experience or who we want to find safety and comfort with. As a result, we may experience a plethora of additional distress, such as anxiety, guilt, despair, frustration, loneliness, and hopelessness. Crucially, we may not be able to engage in our usual mental health routines to find relief and process our loss.
How can we engage with our grief in these challenging circumstances without drowning in it?
1. Allow yourself to feel your emotions
Grief is painful, sometimes overwhelming. The immense sadness of having lost someone we love is often accompanied by conflicting complex emotions, such as guilt, anger, numbness, fear, confusion and even relief. Try to identify and label each feeling that comes up for you, and remind yourself that it is okay to feel that way. There is no perfect way to grieve.
It’s okay to miss the person we lost. It’s okay to be angry at the person we lost. It’s okay to feel relief. It’s okay to feel nothing. It’s okay to realise with sudden force that we also one day will die and feel fear and grief around that. It’s okay to feel guilty for something with did or didn’t do. It’s okay to feel confused about how the future will look or how to even start the day. In fact, all these things are commonly reported during the bereavement process. Allowing ourselves to feel what we feel is the first step to being able to process these emotions.
Although Covid-19 may limit our opportunities for social interaction and support, it can provide us with the time and space to sit with our emotions without distractions of work, leisure and social commitments. Spending some time alone with our feelings and thoughts can be a crucial part of the bereavement process.
2. Acknowledge our change in identity
The people we love are not only people we care about and feel connection with, but also people who help us to understand who we are. In that sense, the people around us and how we relate to them are parts of our identity. When we lose one of these people, we also lose that part of our identity. Thus, we make need to deal with a change in our sense of self. This can create anxiety, confusion and emptiness in us.
Often, we tend to reaffirm our identity by reaching out to our social network, our friends and family. The opportunity for this can be limited during our Covid-19 safety measures. Nonetheless, we can make purposeful effort to explore how the loss of our loved one has impacted how we see ourselves. What was our key role in the relationship with the person we are mourning? How has that role changed for us now the person is no longer with us? What does that change mean for us? At times, part of our bereavement process will be grieving that part of our identity. Having awareness of this process can give us a feeling of security and allow us to make more active choices in our identity development and reaffirming of our sense of self.
3. Engage in bereavement rituals at home
Funerals are the most common bereavement ritual that helps with processing the loss of a loved one by providing opportunity for grieving and closure. For many people, being able to say farewell and attend a burial or cremation is a final act symbolising the end of a physical existence. It also helps manifest the reality of death. Psychologically, this can help as us move toward accepting our loss and processing our grief. Not being able to engage in such final rites can trigger further distress as it prevents us from using our beliefs, religions, spirituality, routines, or traditions to come to terms with our loss.
While coming together for funeral gatherings may not be possible during Covid-19, there are other bereavement rituals that have therapeutic effects in the grieving process. These include building memorials in a physical or online space; lighting candles; expressions of faith; creating memory books with photos and stories; or writing a song or letter to the deceased. The key element of these rituals is to focus on the person we lost: remembering them, understanding they are no longer with us, and saying our goodbyes in ways that feel right for us. Some of these rituals can become a daily or weekly routine in our bereavement process, and may provide comfort in keeping us connected with the person we are mourning. Moreover, they can help to make the death more real to us, especially if we are not able to be physically present.
4. Actively process your experience
Grief affects different people in different ways. We often have the urge to turn away from painful feelings or try to alleviate them using methods to ignore or suppress them. Research shows that healthier ways of processing grief include methods that actively engage us with our experience of mourning without overwhelming us. These can include journaling our thoughts and feelings, painting art, making music, dancing, telling stories – creating an emotional outlet that permits us to let us explore and process our distress without drowning in it. Creating something can also help to give us a sense of purpose and make our grief more tangible as it flows into our creation. This can give us the opportunity to externalise our grief, rather than carrying it bottled up inside us. For many of us, such active processing can be engaged in more than usual during Covid-19 as the safety restrictions create time and space at home away from work, leisure and social activities.
5. Ask for and give each other space
Covid-19 may see us in isolation with our family members, sharing limited space and adapting to new family routines. In this novel circumstance, it may be challenging for us to get the space we need to grieve our loved one. The people we are spending time with may want to try to support us and be there for us, while not be entirely sure what we need and when we need it. It is important to ask for space when we need it while we are mourning, and it is important to give those grieving this space – even if you are all grieving the same loss. Everyone will be on their own unique grief schedule. While it is important to check-in and reach out when we need support, it is just as important to respect boundaries and understand that someone else may be mourning in a different way.
While remaining indoors, we can be active in creating a space for ourselves that is separate from our usual living space. This can be a room we do not use regularly, a corner of a room, an attic, or even a blanket fort! It’s a time to get creative and carve out the space we need. We can add items into this space that help us to feel calm and comforted, or items that remind us of our deceased loved one. It is entirely up to you whether you are comfortable letting someone else into this space with you or whether this is your own safe space only.
6. Fiercely embrace technology for social support
Grief can be isolating. Often it can feel like other people do not understand what we are going through – what we are truly experiencing. Grief can permeate every aspect of our daily lives. We have been thrown out of our usual daily routines, into confusion and distress. With our current social distancing limitations, this sense of isolation and loneliness can be even worse. It may take us additional effort to reach out to our loved ones; often effort that we struggle to find strength for when exhausted by grief itself.
We may be hesitant to use technology as it can feel awkward at first, or confrontational as it emphasises the physical distance. This can be particularly true, if we tend to receive and express our love and care through touch. However, making the deliberate step to send that message, make that phone call or connect on a video platform can be rewarding and alleviate some of our anguish. We can share our thoughts, feelings, or even moments of silence, together.
Treating our online interactions the same way as we would treat our offline interactions can help to make us feel more connected and present. Making the choice to fiercely embrace technology can make us feel in control, and remove some of our indecision and anxiety around this online space. Importantly, it can put us in the right mindset to reach out for social support when we need it – which is key for getting through bereavement.
7. Seek help from mental health professionals
Grief can be overwhelming and complex – it helps to get a listening ear from a mental health professional who can help guide you in the grieving process. During Covid-19, many mental health professionals who were practising only in-person previously are now offering online consultations too. Thus, through Covid-19 you are gaining access to a wider range of experts independent from your location. This means you can take the time to do you research, consider factors such as expertise, personality, cost and training, and connect with someone who really feels right for you. Mental health professionals have a range of techniques to draw from to help support you during a time of bereavement and help you to take active charge of your mourning process.
While Covid-19 has brought about both grief and loss as well as challenges for our grieving and bereavement process, there are ways of ensuring we can engage with our mourning and get support when we need it. Making use of these techniques and seeking professional help if required can help us to stay afloat and manage our grief in these difficult times.