COVID-19 Resources

Coping With Grief When You Can’t Say Goodbye

May. 3, 2020

The last thing anyone wants to think about is losing a loved one. But with hospital visitor restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, families are facing the difficult reality of having to say goodbye to their loved ones without being able to see them in person.

Loved ones may not have the chance to say goodbye in ways they normally would. This means you may only be able to see your relatives virtually or from a distance. Losing a loved one is hard enough, but COVID-19 has temporarily altered the grieving process.

One of the unique challenges is the inability to be with loved ones when they are admitted to the hospital and during the dying process. As a result, family members may not have the opportunity to spend those final days together.

“In essence, those grieving can feel like their loved one has been removed from the grieving process,” says Alexandra Gee, PsyD, UC Health clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “There can also be a great fear that a loved one is dying alone.”

Now more than ever, Dr. Gee emphasizes relying on one’s support system through this grieving process, as well as being open to alternative forms of communication with their loved ones, such as video technology.

Stages of grief and loss

According to a model created in the 1960s by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Individuals move differently through the grieving process. Some experience only one stage, while others cycle through multiple stages. There is no “normal” grieving process, but these are some of the most common emotions that people experience.

Recently, another grief specialist, David Kessler, introduced a sixth stage of grief, which he calls meaning-making. In this stage, those in grief learn to make meaning from the death of their loved one.

Anticipatory grief during a pandemic

Anticipatory grief is the part of the grieving process that occurs before a loved one has actually passed away. Anticipatory grief often happens in situations where the circumstances are dire, or the long-term prognosis is poor.

Anticipatory grief has become more prevalent during COVID-19 because families may be told that they are not going to be able to visit their loved ones during their time in the hospital. Family members may also experience anticipatory grief even before the severity of the case is determined, based on information they are receiving from outside sources such as the news or social media.

Advice for those who might be grieving in isolation

Dr. Gee recommends the following in order to grieve amidst the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Allowing yourself space and time to grieve is very important. Your normal avenues for support may not be available in the traditional sense, but that does not make grieving any less important.
  • Utilize your support system. Reach out via telephone or video call to those you can lean on. This can be other family members who are also grieving, or friends who may not have had a relationship with the person who died. Ask those closest to you to check in on you regularly. Some days, you may feel like talking, and others, you may want to be alone. All of these reactions are normal, but be tuned in to what you need.
  • Continue engaging in self-care activities that you know are good for you. Regular exercise, listening to music, journaling, yoga, etc.
  • Find time for remembrance and reflection. You may not be able to memorialize your loved one in the traditional way (in-person funerals, celebrations of life, etc) right now, but instead, you and your family may try to plan a virtual memorial. You could also spend time journaling about your favorite memories with your loved one.
  • Ask for professional help when you need it.

Services available from UC Health Psychiatry

Our compassionate team of experts are here to help during this tumultuous time. If you are grieving and need to talk to someone, contact UC Health Psychiatry at 513-558-7700. There are also social workers within each of our hospitals who have access to helpful resources for adults and children grieving the death of a loved one.