In March, Natasha* lost their partner to the pandemic. Being in a place with patchy internet in India while their partner was in the U.S., they couldn’t connect with them in their final moments and felt robbed of closure. Natasha didn’t know how to deal with the loss.
“In the movies when someone dies, they show what their last words were, how they were feeling, if they passed away holding hands with their loved ones, and so on. I didn’t get to have any of those,” they told Re:Set.
Grieving from a distance and being unable to say bye to loved ones has been a significant aftermath of the pandemic. No one knows how exactly to handle grief, but in the COVID era, where we’re most likely away from family and friends, it can be even more difficult to cope. Because of the restriction on movement, we might even be all by ourselves when the news of someone’s passing reaches us, with no support system in close proximity to tide us through the immediate rush of emotions.
Lola Méndez was alone when her aunt passed away suddenly last August. Even though she was five hours away from Rocha, Uruguay, where the burial took place, Méndez couldn’t visit her, or meet any friends for comfort.
“My aunt had been sick for many years, and I mostly was relieved she was no longer suffering, but it still makes my heart ache that she died and was buried alone,” she said.
In the quest for closure, various traditions of bidding adieu to the deceased have been created that also allow their family and friends to gather and process loss collectively. However, this again has been rendered impossible in the pandemic.
“The elaborate rituals around death usually serve the purpose of emotionally registering the loss,” Asmita Sharma, a Delhi-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist, told Re:Set. “But in the current time, most people are not even able to see the bodies of the deceased and therefore the idea of their death feels like a myth one cannot completely believe.”
While it can be difficult to talk about grief and lay bare the vulnerable emotions you’re feeling, it is also important. People who have shared the loss of someone need to find ways in which they can talk about the deceased and remember them, Sharma said.
When both of Amelia Merrill’s parents lost their mothers within three weeks of each other, she stepped in to provide them that safe space.
“No one prepares you for that. [But] I got through it by focusing on my parents and trying to be what they needed me to be for them,” said Merrill, a resident of Maryland, U.S. It wasn’t easy though, and she had to take a few weeks off work because she couldn’t focus on anything.
Unexpected losses like these in the pandemic can complicate the process of dealing with grief for many who might struggle with intrusive thoughts. These can include being unable to accept the loss, having an irrational fear for their own life and that of others, and even blaming themselves for the way things panned out. Sharma points to survivor’s guilt, wherein “many of us who have survived the death of our loved ones blame ourselves for not doing enough or for managing to stay alive.”
According to Sharma, it’s important to be mindful of these thoughts, and practice compassion towards ourselves when such thoughts do come to us, for they also have the potential to derail the healing process.
“I’ve tried hard to redirect those thoughts [of despair] towards the fact that she’s no longer suffering when I am feeling sad that she’s no longer with us,” Méndez said about her aunt’s passing.
The quest for closure
Having to deal with loss and grief alone can be incredibly damaging to one’s mental health. With the barrage of COVID-related deaths that we’re hearing of, the creation of spaces that promote empathetic listening is of utmost importance, Sharma told Re:Set.
“It is especially in these dark moments that we need a circle of care around us to affirm our existence and share the pain. It is important to make mental health services as accessible as possible for those dealing with loss,” she said.
It is also collective healing spaces like these that have helped Natasha process their recent loss.
“Grief therapy circles with people have helped me even more than individual therapy, since everybody is experiencing collective pain and trauma in these times. I have been trying to get out of the survival mentality that makes you feel like you’re on your own and holds you back from reaching out for help,” they said.
They have also tried to seek closure by speaking to their deceased partner’s family and relying on friends to get information that will help them imagine what their partner was like in their last moments. Engaging in activities such as art and writing has also turned out to be a handy coping mechanism.
As we learn to live with the loss, their absence begins to sting a little less, and we can hope for easier days.
We all deal with loss differently, and some of us might take longer than others to process our grief and mourn our loved ones. Regardless of where you find yourself in this process, it is important to give yourself time, and remember that grief is a long-lasting emotion. It never completely vanishes, and there’s no way to fill the void someone we love leaves behind. But as we learn to live with the loss, their absence begins to sting a little less, and we can hope for easier days.
As the pandemic continues with no clear end in sight, Sharma said that healing from this collective trauma will take a long time.
“All we can do for now is to offer each other empathy and space to process this grief in our own individual ways.”
*Name changed to protect identity