Coping with grief and loss during the coronavirus crisis

As Americans continue to grapple with the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak, many are struggling to cope with the loss of friends and loved ones.

Dr. Jen Hartstein, Yahoo Life Mental Health Contributor, spoke to Yahoo Life about how she recommends people approach these difficult situations.

“It is 100% normal for all of us to be feeling stressed and anxious about what’s going on,” she says. “And it’s even more normal to be having some signs and symptoms of grief because we’re all dealing with a collective grief of things we’re losing, and for some of us it’s personal and we’re losing people that we love,” Hartstein adds.

“If someone’s not as sick and in the hospital—bringing groceries, having a driveway ‘Hello’—any of those kinds of things where you can just show up and be present,” she says. “We have to be creative. It’s going to be different but we can still show up in some kind of meaningful way.”

When dealing with someone who is sick and anxious about their prognosis, knowing what not to say can be vital.

“Keeping it neutral is your best bet because it allows the other person to express themselves without trying to be talked out of it,” she advises. “In those moments where we’re trying to be supportive, the things not to say are things like, ‘Well at least it could get better’ or ‘At least you’re not in the hospital,’ or ‘Look what happened to that person.’ Any sort of comparison or any sort of minimizing of their emotional experience is going to backfire.”

If you’ve lost someone close to you, then you may be struggling with grief.

“You have to provide yourself the space and the opportunity to be in your grief and be mindful not to get stuck in the ‘guilt’ of the grief,” says Hartstein.

She continued, “It’s very easy to be like ‘survivor’s guilt—you should have known, you should have been more present, you should have done something differently.’ It services you not at all to do that,” she says. “Being able to mourn the way you would normally mourn, leaning on your supports, allowing yourself to be sad, talking about the person in ways that keep their memories alive, things like that are super helpful and allow you to move through the process in the pace that you need to.”

Video Transcript

JEN HARTSTEIN: So we've hit a time during the COVID-19 crisis where many of us are personally affected by loss and are dealing with how to navigate that and how to manage that. So we're going to talk about some tips on how to get through it effectively and how to lean on the people around you. I'm Dr. Jennifer Hartstein. On the Yahoo Life mental health contributor.

It is 100% normal for all of us to be feeling stressed and anxious about what's going on, and it's even more normal to be having some signs and symptoms of grief because we are all dealing with a collective grief of the things we're losing. And for some of us, it's personal, and we're losing people that we love.

When we're dealing with somebody who's sick, we usually can go visit. We can hold a hand. We can share stories. We can be connected. And that touch part of things is so vital during all of this. So got to be creative and come up with new ways.

And that may mean showing up if somebody can look out the window, showing up downstairs and holding a sign, telling them how much they love you, or asking a health care worker if they can hold up a phone and do a FaceTime for you. Or if someone's not as sick and in the hospital, bringing groceries, having a driveway kind of hello, any of those kinds of things where you can just show up and be present. We have to be creative. It's going to be different, but we can still show up in some meaningful way.

I think keeping it neutral is your best bet because it allows the other person to express themselves without trying to be talked out of it. And when we're experiencing emotions, we want to just experience them. Talking us out of it isn't helpful. So validating and holding a space for us is really, really key.

In those moments where we're trying to be supportive, the things not to say are things like, well, at least it could get better, or at least you're not in the hospital, but can you imagine what happened, or look what happened to that person. Any sort of comparison or any sort of minimizing of their emotional experience is going to backfire, so I highly recommend you don't do it.

Many of us are going to be affected firsthand by someone who passes, sometimes before their time, sometimes unexpectedly, and oftentimes alone because we are not allowed to be with them. So grief is more complicated, and grief is complicated already. So I think you have to provide yourself the space and the opportunity to be in your grief and be mindful not to get stuck in the guilt of the grief, right?

It's very easy to be like survivor's guilt. You should have known. You should have been more present. You should have done something differently. It services you not at all to do that. So being able to mourn the way you would normally mourn, leaning on your supports, allowing yourself to be sad, talking about the person in ways that keep their memories alive, things like that are super helpful and allow you to move through the process in the pace that you need to.

We are all in a collective grief. And so then on top of it, we're having very personal grief for different family members, friends, colleagues. And the best thing you can say to somebody is I'm sorry, and then be there, right? Presence is so important. And really, what people need, they need to be able to talk about the person that they lost. They need to be able to share stories. They need to be able to express emotion.

And so the key thing for those of us who want to be supportive is to just be present. Show up. We can't be there in person. But you can be there on the call. You can be there on a conference call-- anything. Just show up, and be present, and let them have that space to be able to talk about it.

When we're losing someone these days, when someone's dying, what we're finding is we can't have our regular rituals. We aren't having funerals. We aren't having memorials. We aren't having Shiva. We're not doing what we've normally done.

So people are being very creative and doing celebrations of life online, and Zoom funerals or Zoom Shivas, or whatever they can do to celebrate the life of the person. And for some people, that may mean delaying grief a little bit so you can have a more formal funeral or memorial service. But things in life do have to keep moving, so we have to have burials and honor the dead in whatever ways we can.

And be creative about how that might be, and do what works for you and your family. And if you have to delay a bigger celebration or a bigger honoring, you can do it when we can come out of quarantine and celebrate them that way.

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