Coping with Grief and Loss during a Pandemic

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By Ms. Shivanee Tripathy, Clinical Psychologist, Department of Psychiatry, KIMS

Losing a loved one to the COVID-19 pandemic is an unusual event in itself to process. As opposed to the traditional ways of extending warmth and support through embracing each other, hospital visits, condolence and prayer meetings, families and friends dealing with the loss are being forbidden to come near their deceased loved ones, organize circumscribed funerals and on top of it bear the burden of wearing protective equipment to block faces.

We have lost more than 4 lakh Indians and more than 40 lakh people across the globe to this pandemic. Some families have been reduced to one fourths of their family size and while some have been struggling with the loss of the backbone or the bread earner of their nest. The grieving involved in the process may turn dysfunctional to a point where the grief blocks smooth functioning of daily activities and may result in prolonged grief disorder or other conditions associated.

Some other factors of dysfunctional grief may include losing an immediate family member rather than a distant known person, being unable to perform last rites and a funeral, having repeated thoughts of the loved one suffering in the hospital bed, learning about possible shortcomings of hospital facilities that could have caused the passing of the deceased, having resentment towards the doctor and other staff involved in taking care of their loved one and imagining scenarios where the deceased loved one could have been prevented from coming in contact with the infection. A flux of negative events like end-of-life experiences while one is already infected and suffering, being confronted with heavy life decisions in extremely constricted hours and soaked in dread and anticipatory grief for days and weeks together would complicate the grief process.

Along with loss of life, other losses may involve being laid off from a job through which one has been supporting their family, financial constraints, salary cuts and limitation of financial and medical resources.

Ways to deal with grief and loss:

While it helps to acknowledge that grief is a natural process after a loss and is a part of recalibration, some other ways of coping like boosting one’s self-efficacy and resilience can help us bounce back from pain and sufferings laid upon us from an unprecedented circumstance.

As described by the recently departed, eminent psychologist Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is described as “People’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance” and those beliefs “determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave” (Bandura,1994).

Complimentary to the former term is resilience. A person is said to be resilient when they are working towards adapting well in the face of trauma, tragedy, threats, adversity or similarly impacting stress.

Ø  One of the ways to accommodate both ways of coping is journaling. Naming your loss individually as well as collectively; the loss borne by people we know and what we as an individual could do to tackle it using the best of our skills and abilities.

Ø  Staying connected with social support has been found to be radically supportive to deal with the period of physical isolation; away from their loved ones while keeping to oneself, having nobody to share can be erogenous for one’s mental health on the other hand.

Ø  Minimizing spending time watching the news can curb a major stressor. Allow yourself to get updated about the world around you gradually instead of developing any amount of worry about not catching up.

Ø  Keeping a balance between grieving and planning for self-restoration with activities like going through old memories and photos, crying reminiscing about the loved one, talking to a friend about the loss while making plans for the future, looking objectively into the voids created by the loss of the loved one, like financial matters, belongings of the deceased that require moving, investing in hobbies etc.

Ø  Deaths during this period of pandemic can attract stigma and cause additional damage to the mental health and hinder coping of the people dealing with it. Normalizing deaths and extending support over messages and video calls and helping them with daily essentials through the grieving period can allow the suffering to channelize their difficulties and push through challenging circumstances.

Ø  One that is most essential for medical professionals is gently informing progressions and deteriorations of the critically ill and delivering the bad news in the sincerest and meaningful manner. We have to keep in mind that right after receiving the news from the care unit, the family of the deceased has to undergo a very tough phase and therefore how we narrate and break it to the family members about the death plays a crucial role.

Grief and loss are the types of suffering that are pervasive in everyone’s life which push an individual through the lowest lows and allow regulation of coping skills to bring them back to optimal functioning. Adapting to a coping that can come useful to an individual in a manner where one prevents further damage through this phase will promote adequate healing.

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