How to grieve in a pandemic | Health Issue | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

How to grieve in a pandemic

Back in March, when the pandemic first spread across the U.S., we all knew this would be a year unlike any other. But what we didn't know, or were maybe in denial of, was how much 2020 would be shaped by grief. Grief over the hundreds of thousands dead. Grief over losing jobs and homes, of not seeing family and friends for months at a time. Grief over favorite restaurants and concert venues closed for good. Grief over people whose mental health collapsed under the weight of it all.

Grief is as common an emotion as any other, but it looks different now. Funerals, memorials, wakes, shivas, and other gatherings of mourning are dangerous. So is hugging. If someone you love dies, how do you grieve when you can't gather with the only other people who know what it's like to lose this person? How do you work through a kind of loss in a situation that no pamphlet or article about the five stages of grief could prepare you for?

Allison Spinneweber, a therapist and the clinical director of East End Therapists, describes grief as a non-linear process of "moving through loss and experiencing it." Grief, she says, is unavoidable, and the best way to get through it is to face it head-on. Not dealing with grief as it’s happening can result in greater damage down the line.

"If you want to deal with grief in a healthy way, you will let yourself sit in your emotions, you will get help to be able to process some of these things, and you just let it occur," says Spinneweber. "The people that avoid it, it gets stored in their bodies and comes out down the line in more uncontrollable ways, which could be anger, it could be chronic health issues, it could be a chronic stress response. It could be an emotional response to something that really shouldn't be a big deal, but because all this grief is stored in the body, it comes out in really extreme ways."

A few weeks ago, after the death of my close friend and coworker Alex Gordon, I didn't have any choice but to face the grief head-on. Work wasn't a distraction because all of my work was tied to him. I couldn't go to a bar to be sad with everyone else and talk about favorite memories. I couldn't go to a funeral or give his friends and family a hug. This is the scenario millions of Americans are dealing with; regardless of whether or not a death is caused by COVID-19, the pandemic has impeded our ability to grieve in the ways that feel most familiar.

Spinneweber describes a step of grieving called "meaning-making," a way of making sense of the loss when it doesn't feel like there's a reason. This feels especially useful now when so many people who were healthy one year ago are now gone.

"Because [someone] experienced this and moved through it, now [they] see how [they are] able to help other people in the same situation," says Spinneweber. "It's taking it and making good in your life because of what happened."

I wrote an obituary for Alex just a few days after he passed, and it was extremely painful, but it helped me come to terms with it in some ways. But what created the most meaning for me was hearing from Alex's family and friends who read the obituary and told me how much it meant to them. Several people said it captured Alex exactly as they knew him, and that it took the place of the funeral they couldn't have. To be able to help other people with their grief made it feel like my grief had a purpose beyond just being sad alone and crying every day.

It takes longer to move through grief under the current circumstances, Spinneweber notes, when the usual means of closure aren't possible. It also creates a greater risk for depression because of the isolation. It's especially important, then, to lean on support systems like family and friends, and to get help from a therapist, which Spinneweber strongly recommends.

While there might be a waitlist for some therapists' offices due to the overwhelming current demand, there's also increasing accessibility to therapy with more offices hiring telehealth therapists.

"If somebody is grieving and is able to get good social support, and they're able to talk to a therapist that is equipped to help them, they have a really good chance after this pandemic of moving on in a healthy way," says Spinneweber.

There are also other ways to manage grief, like making sure to take a walk every day, even if it's short, and connecting with people, even if it's virtual. Leaning on the people you are able to see in person is useful — sometimes, you just have to let your friend make dinner and do the dishes. Personally, I've found writing through it to be helpful.

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