Today’s blog post is about grief—more specifically, grief during a pandemic. This post details my own personal experience of losing a child, and how the pandemic has intensified my grief process. I write about our society’s and systemic perceptions of grief, and I also provide some insight into how to support someone who is grieving during the pandemic.
This post is heavy, but it is an important one to write. Grieving folk are often left alone, which can be truly harmful. We need to change the script on grief, and a good place to start, is by having more conversations about it—even though it’s hard.
If you aren’t in the place to do so—that’s ok. Please be kind and gentle with yourself; take breaks or avoid reading if you need to. Grief is part of life, and when you’re ready, there are tools and resources available.
For those of you who are ready, proceed mindfully and continue reading.
***Update 1/26/21! This blog post was published on Scary Mommy! Such an honor to have my piece about infant loss and grief featured. Click here to read it in all of its Scary Mommy glory!
A lox spread with fresh bagels; being held snug by the arms of my loved ones—that’s how I imagined it. It, being my daughter’s funeral.
But there was no gathering; no ceremony, no hugs—no trays of food that I would refuse to eat. Instead, only silence filled the days, weeks, and months since the loss of my baby girl, Addison.
Grief in March of 2020—grief in a pandemic.
“Do you want to postpone the funeral, or have one without a gathering?” the cemetery asks.
An impossible question to answer, one that plays on repeat in my head. I don’t respond, and instead, I think, how is this my life?
I’m well aware of what has happened, but the shock has not yet settled. Just weeks ago, I was at my baby shower, my seven-month pregnant belly bulging through a white silk dress; my hair perfectly curled.
Every waking moment not spent at work, was spent in the nursery, thoughtfully placing each piece of furniture, toy, décor, and clothing in its rightful place—a stupid argument about where to place the bookshelf takes up one of our evenings, before a compromise settles the score.
What should have been the final few weeks of my first pregnancy and the preparation for our baby, ends abruptly—at just over eight months gestation, culminating with a fight for survival.
An induction of labor lasting forty-eight hours, two emergency surgeries, days in the ICU, and a week in the hospital; I discharge the second week of March, right before the stay-at-home order.
“Do you want to postpone the funeral, or have one without a gathering?” They need an answer to that question, a question asked as if there’s a choice to make. First, we lose our baby, and then we lose the right to mourn; a secondary loss of grief during a pandemic.
She will be buried in Los Angeles, where we are both from, in a cemetery surrounded by family members on both my and my husband’s side. We can drive the 2 ½ hours to be present, alone, at the cemetery, or we can have 1-2 family members in our place; our burial proxies. With the fear of the unknown virus and my suppressed immune system from a delivery that almost cost me my life, we opt to stay in San Diego and watch over Facetime. My brother and my husband’s sister, attend in our place.
We mail them items to place in her casket: a yellow baby blanket with clouds, a blanket with her initials, a stuffed hedgehog, and Lakers and Dodgers shoes. As we’re picking out items, my mind flashes to the letters—the ones I wrote to her throughout my pregnancy. I will bury them with her, I think, as I grab the stack of sealed letters from the special box; each titled with a date and how far along I was when I wrote it.
Every part of my postpartum body hurts as I slowly walk up the stairs. It is the body of a mother who fought so hard to survive the emotionally and physically traumatic delivery of a lifeless child. I bring the box to my bedroom and light my favorite Voluspa candle—Panjore Lychee, and take a deep breath as the familiar scent wafts through the air. Tears trickle down my cheeks, fleeing from my swollen lids, as I try to put the love I have for her into words, filling the tiny card completely. It is the last letter I will ever write her, and I’m painfully aware of this as my hand grips the pen that glides effortlessly on paper.
Days later, the phone rings; they’re calling us on Facetime for the virtual funeral—our siblings present in our place, our parents conferenced into the call. I flip the camera so that we cannot be seen. We’re Facetiming for my daughter’s funeral in the middle of a pandemic—what is going on in the world?
I curl into a ball and melt into my husband’s arms; my head rests perfectly in the crook of his neck. He is strong and gentle and his arms have become my safe place; a place I have learned to call home over the past month. Never before have I needed to be loved, held, and nurtured, in the way I do now; in the way I should be nurturing my baby. He brushes my hair with his fingertips, making way for his lips to whisper in my ear, “she’s at peace. No more pain or suffering for her.”
The ceremony is quick and quiet, and with a click of that red button, we are once again, a family of two that should’ve been three.
Cards fill our mailbox, messages flood our phones, and packages arrive on our doorstep for the first few months.
But with time, the gestures fade until we are left alone in silence. We have reached the point in grief when people assume that we have moved on, but what they don’t know is that there is no point in time when this happens. Moving on does not exist, only moving forward, as we try to navigate our new reality.
First, we lose our baby, then the right to gather, followed by the silence that time after death brings. Grief is always hard, because we are asked to continue living though our world has imploded. We are asked to function in the same way we did, prior to our loss. We all grieve, and yet, our society isn’t built for it. The losses that occur after grief, only add to this, making grieving individuals feel even more alone.
All of these things are true of grief and anyone who has ever grieved has likely experienced this—but what about grieving in a pandemic?
Remember, there is no gathering—no memorials or funerals.
People are often not able to say goodbye to their loved ones; they are dying alone, because we are not allowed to be near each other for risk and fear of spreading the virus. In the luckiest of situations, people are sometimes able to say goodbye virtually, but even this, will never be enough and is not a guarantee.
Supporting the grieving was already a hard task, so what are we to do now? How can we support those who are grieving during the pandemic?
Here’s the good news: there is still much that can be done to support someone who is grieving, regardless of these circumstances.
First, here’s a tip that will hopefully alleviate some pressure: free yourself of the expectation that you need to cure them of their grief. This is impossible and not only do they not expect this, but trying to do so, will only create a divide.
The most important thing to do is to acknowledge their grief; hear it, see it, normalize it, and validate it—do not dismiss it. Do not tell people that things will get better. People will be sad; they will cry, scream, and say things that seem dark. Not only is this ok, but it’s normal, healthy, and necessary. We need to allow space for the grieving to grieve.
The pandemic has been hard on everyone, this is absolutely true—and your experience of this past year is valid. Just because someone has a different experience, doesn’t make yours any less hard or painful, AND it also doesn’t take away from someone’s devastatingly painful experience of grief. Remember that someone who is grieving is living through the pandemic like everyone else, AND they’ve lost someone they love.
Check in on your grieving person—continue to call and send them messages, even when they don’t respond. Send cards, food, flowers; let them know that they matter—that their grief and loved one still matters. Continue to do so as time passes. Grief is lifelong, and a few months of checking in is often not enough. Most people will check in closer to the physical loss, but your grieving loved one will need ongoing support—especially as the contact from others starts to fade.
Remember that grief is already isolating, so someone who is grieving during a pandemic is only likely to feel more alone. They will be cut off from most, if not all of their supports, and they might not be able to utilize normal outings, skills, or hobbies, that usually bring moments of relief.
Do what you can to remind them they are loved, and that you are thinking of them. In a time where we have hopefully been reflecting and learning what’s most important in life, let’s not forget about those who are grieving—they need us now, more than ever.
Let’s talk a little more about grief—the big, scary word this post is centered around. Grief cannot be treated, but it can be supported. There are trained therapists who specialize in grief, and while they cannot remedy the pain, they can most certainly aid the healing process.
For those of you who are grieving, my heart aches for you. Yes, grief is part of life, and no, this doesn’t make it ok. It doesn’t make it easy, and you do not need to get over it. Your experience of grief is healthy and normal. Our culture, society, medical, and mental health systems often pathologize grief, which is likely why you feel this way. This is a reflection of what’s wrong in our culture and society—not what’s wrong with you.
We grieve because we love. We grieve because something is right with us—not wrong with us. This is my personal and professional opinion on grief, as a therapist who is trained to assess, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders. Grief is NOT a mental health disorder. There is nothing wrong with you for grieving. In fact, as a clinician, I would be more concerned about someone who has experienced a loss but doesn’t exhibit any signs of grief, than someone who is labeled as having a hard time. If you’re grieving, of course you’re having a hard time—how could you not be?
As you continue down this new path of grief, I hope you know you are not alone. I hope you find moments that are less hard. I hope you find people who support you in the way you need. I hope you have moments where you’re able to love and feel loved. I hope you have moments where you’re kinder and more patient with yourself. I hope you have moments of light—moments that don’t negate the challenges, erase your grief, or make what happened to you ok, and instead, find a way to coexist.
For anyone who is grieving or loves someone who is grieving, click here for additional resources.
Written by Tracy Gilmour-Nimoy, M.S., LMFT, PMH-C