Yesterday, my grandfather died due to complications from COVID-19. As a friend put it, “There is no good time to lose someone, but now is especially tough.” I wanted to share how I’m coping with some of the unique challenges of losing someone during this time in the hopes that it can provide comfort to others.
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Honor Your Loved One’s Legacy
The loss of a loved one is a significant life event. And the fact that we’re experiencing a pandemic doesn’t make it any less life-altering and devastating. However, it can be hard not to feel like our grief and the legacies of those we lost are trivialized because of the prevalence of death these days. It’s hard to fathom that to the outside world, our loved one is just a statistic, another tally in the ever-rising COVID-19 death count.
What if your loved one didn’t even die from COVID-19? Until recently, that’s what I thought would happen to my grandfather. You see, he’d been in hospice for months, nearing the end of life due to Parkinson’s, before he got sick with the virus. Remember, right now, many people are losing loved ones for reasons unrelated to coronavirus, but that doesn’t make their loss any less painful.
If you’re like me, you want to ensure your loved one is honored for how they lived life and not the circumstances in which he died. I want to ensure that my grandfather is remembered as a sweet, quick-witted family man, not as another victim to the pandemic. We can help others understand that our grief is not generic by sharing stories — about our loved one’s smile, jokes, or the way he supported his family during times of need.
Here are ways you might consider sharing your family member or friend’s legacy with others:
- Write a speech to share at a virtual funeral or celebration of life event.
- Create an online memorial through which to share memories and photos.
- Call up family members or friends to tell them about your loved one.
- Record stories of your loved one to pass down to future generations.
If you're looking to support someone who's grieving, you can also do what so many of my thoughtful, compassionate friends and colleagues have done. Reach out to say, “If and when you’re ready, I’d love to hear more about your loved one.”
The most painful part of losing my grandfather was the thought of him dying alone. Social distancing means that the horrible reality is that many people cannot provide comfort to loved ones when they’re at the end. The complicated ways COVID-19 is impacting end-of-life experiences make it even more likely that the deceased’s loved ones will experience a host of challenging emotions like sadness, anger, and guilt.
A powerful antidote to these negative emotions is gratitude. Science shows how beneficial gratitude can be to our well-being, and anecdotally, I can attest to its positive effects during a trying time. Though it might at first seem hard to find things to be grateful for, I assure you they exist. Here are some of the things I’m grateful for right now, which I hope can inspire you:
- I’m grateful for the brave souls who risked their lives to help care for my grandfather at the end. To my grandfather’s aides who didn’t immediately quit when he tested positive for coronavirus and instead took on overnight shifts so he wouldn’t be alone, I thank you. To the hospice workers who continued to check in on my grandfather to help keep him as comfortable as possible, I thank you. And to the maintenance crew member and executive director who kept my grandfather company and said all the right things when his aides and family couldn’t be there, you are all heroes.
- I’m grateful that we could honor some of my grandfather’s end-of-life wishes. When my grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, we sat down with him to talk about his end-of-life preferences, including what would bring him comfort in his final days. One of his hopes was, if possible, for us to be by his side at the end. While it pained us not to be able to be there with him in that way, we were able to honor other wishes, such as playing Frank Sinatra music for him throughout his final days. Knowing we could do at least something to provide comfort from afar brings me peace. We wouldn’t have known to do this if we hadn’t had that earlier conversation.
- I’m grateful that I got to share so many wonderful moments with my grandfather while he was still well. At the end of his life, it was hard not to be swept up in the day to day, especially as my grandfather’s condition was rapidly changing. My family members and I had a number of items to take care of after his passing, too. I’ve found it helpful to take a few minutes each day to step back and reflect on special memories with my grandfather and to take comfort in knowing that even if I couldn’t say it to him at the very end, he knew how much I loved him.
Create Ways to Connect
Just as it was hard not to be there with my grandfather when he died, it’s equally difficult to be apart from friends and family during this time. I’m unable to hug my mom right now or to be among my brother and cousins to support them in their grief.
The pandemic has utterly disrupted the way we host funerals and observe other death rituals, many of which are about bringing people together to remind one another we’re not alone during this difficult time. I’m lucky because the cemetery where we will bury my grandfather still allows up to 10 people to attend in person. Everyone else, however, will watch the graveside service remotely via a livestream.
Nonetheless, my family is finding ways to foster the feeling of support we’d otherwise get from in-person traditions. Here are some things we’re doing:
- We’re recording the virtual funeral and asking attendees to post in the chat notes about my grandfather. We’ll review them all after the event. It can help to create a virtual space to capture photos, stories, and messages.
- We’re planning to sit shiva (a Jewish mourning tradition) virtually. Friends and family can have time to be with us face-to-face to share their condolences and reminisce about my grandfather. Even if you’re not Jewish, you could consider organizing a virtual event during which people can “stop by” to exchange stories and words of kindness.
- I’m lucky enough to be within driving distance from some of my family. If you are, too, you might consider meeting up for a social-distancing walk. It may not be the same as a hug, but it’s nice to be with someone in person, even if you’re at least six feet apart.
- I’m planning extra online hangouts and phone calls with my closest friends. The people I turn to when I’m down are still here for me. I know that spending time with them, even remotely, will help cheer me up and feel supported during this time.
No Loss is the Same
Many people are losing loved ones right now. Even so, our experiences with grief and loss are not all the same. I recognize that my experience with death during COVID-19 is shaped by certain privileges, and I know that people of different races and socioeconomic statuses do not have access to the care and resources my family was able to draw on during this difficult time.
Nonetheless, I hope my experiences can help others cope with their losses and help their support systems understand what it’s like to lose a loved one right now.