Nearly 68,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus, leaving behind families and grieving loved ones who themselves may be facing the illness or find themselves trying to cope alone due to social distancing measures. Hospitals have brought in iPads and helped facilitate phone calls for patients who may be facing their final days alone, but many, including the elderly who are considered to be particularly at risk for COVID-19 complications, may find the grief compounded with the sudden loneliness overwhelming.
“It is very important to assess and address the potential for the surviving spouse to experience survivors’ guilt,” Melissa Sampath, LPC, LCADC, ACS, associate vice president of outpatient services for CarePlus New Jersey, told Fox News. “If the death of a spouse is due to the coronavirus, their significant other can be left feeling responsible and worry about whether he or she was the one to pass the virus to that person, the pain it may have caused them and whether they still have the potential to spread the virus to others.”
Sampath said those feelings may be particularly difficult to deal with in isolation, so it is “vital for the elderly who may have lost a spouse due to the coronavirus to have family and social supports to remain connected.” Encouraging the surviving spouse to seek mental health treatment is another way to help them process their grief, she said.
“In this age of social distancing, it’s crucial for the family and social supports to ensure that this does not mean social isolation,” she said. “Staying connected via telephone calls and video platforms like Zoom or FaceTime are important ways to offer support and help family members, especially if they are coping with loss and experience survivor’s guilt.”
It’s not just the elderly who are experiencing the sudden loss either, as victims who are seemingly otherwise healthy before contracting COVID-19 have also died due to complications. Jonathan Coelho, 32, died on April 22 after a 28-day stay in the hospital. The Connecticut father of two died before his wife could get to the hospital to say goodbye. It is not clear when his many friends and family members will be able to celebrate his life in a memorial, which can complicate the grieving process for many.
“Grief is a difficult process at any time, but during the current epidemic, there are many more traumatic and complex circumstances especially with coronavirus taking the lives of those who may not have died otherwise,” Sampath said. “We have seen instances of healthy, young and otherwise high functioning individuals lose their battles with the virus and this sudden death can be very traumatic for their loved ones. Therefore it is so important not to grieve alone. Reach out to family and friends, leaders in faith and mental health professionals for support.”
Sampath said it’s also important to stay on top of basic necessities like eating, personal hygiene and exercise, which can get lost when dealing with traumatic events.
“Above all, be patient with yourself and give yourself time and space to accept what you’re feeling,” she said. “When words don’t fully capture your feelings, it may be helpful to use creative outlets like journaling, poetry, writing, art and photo/video collages to process the painful feelings and express yourself.”
And for those fortunate enough to share a final video or phone call with a loved one to say goodbye, Sampath recommends keeping the final moments true to how they would be if shared iinperson.
“You may not be able to hold hands or physically connect, but you can still have those meaningful conversations and affirm your bond with your loved one, maybe even make amends if you need to, which can help soften the blow of loss and may provide some sense of closure,” she said. “Use creativity with virtual platforms to follow the traditions that are meaningful to you, which vary depending on culture and faith.”
Using “virtual gatherings” after death with loved ones can also help with the grieving process, as people can relive moments and share emotions with one another.
“Seeking mental health assistance is another very helpful way to identify your feelings, develop coping skills to manage grief, and provide stability in these uncertain times,” said Sampath, who added that CarePlus NJ is offering a specialized grief and bereavement program. “With the rise of telehealth services, seeking help can even be a less intimidating approach for people than in-person visits.”