Coping With Death During COVID-19 Pandemic

Death, regardless of how it comes, causes grief. However, the current COVID-19 pandemic has presented several peculiarities, from ailing persons dying alone to restricted numbers at funerals. These can make coping with death a bit more challenging.

In an interview with the Barbados Government Information Service, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Psychiatric Hospital, Dr. Joy Sue, discussed some coping mechanisms to help persons deal with death, especially during these times.

Dr. Sue explained that normally when medical professionals suspected a client in hospital was close to death, the family would often be called to see that person alive for the last time.  This provides closure for relatives, and a sense of peace for the dying person.

However, death has become increasingly complicated for families whose love ones are isolated with COVID-19 in healthcare facilities.  
The severity of the respiratory symptoms can make it difficult or impossible for the sick person to speak, or reach out without assistance. The ideal situation would be to facilitate video calls, but Dr. Sue pointed out this could not always be done.

“Unless a relative is also in the facility, this may not be possible.  When there are relatives in the same facility they are allowed to visit; talk with and provide support for their loved one by simply just being there,” she shared.  

Sadly, some persons with severe cases and underlying conditions have died “alone” as healthy relatives could not visit them due to the contagious nature of COVID-19.

The infectious viral illness has also forced governments around the globe to implement strict measures against social gatherings.  Attendance at funerals have been limited to a minimum of five persons in some countries and up to 20 in others. This too could present challenges as family members will have to agree on who can and cannot attend.

Use technology to connect: When a loved one is dying or has died, family members usually like to come together physically to offer support for each other. With social distancing restrictions, family members should reach out via telephone, text, family groups on WhatsApp, or video and conference calls.

Focus on fond memories: Dr. Sue explained that by sharing fond memories of the loved one through stories, photos or videos, “helps to remember the good about the person’s life and the impact that person may have had on relatives, instead of only concentrating on the negative aspect of the situation, which is the loss”.

Self-care: Dr. Sue advised persons not to neglect themselves while grieving, stressing that self-care was very important. Grieving persons should ensure they eat well; drink plenty healthy fluids; exercise and get enough sleep. Self-care is also helpful in distracting negative thoughts. “Attend to both your physical and psychological health needs,” she stated.

Express grief: Dr. Sue urged persons to honestly express their feelings about the death. “They can do this verbally, in writing, through art or another medium. What not to do is put on a brave front for anyone,” she cautioned.

Acknowledge grief is unique: While the psychiatrist called on persons to express their feelings, she warned them not to compare their grieving process to others.

“Some persons may cry and others may not. That does not make the former weak and the latter cold. Be patient with yourself. People grieve for different lengths of time, and sometimes when you believe you are over the death, an anniversary may come around that stirs up the feelings of loss and sadness again. This is normal, so do not judge yourself,” she outlined.

Avoid gateway habits: Activities that appear to be helpful in the short term but could cause long term problems should be avoided, such as alcohol or substance use. “They should not be used as coping mechanisms as there is the risk of developing dependence which may last well beyond your period of grieving,” Dr. Sue warned.

Speak to trusted persons: Communication is very important, but Dr. Sue advised persons to only speak with persons they trust, such as a family member, a close friend, religious leader, church member or counsellor. “There may be those who offer help and try to get close to you in these times, so that they can take advantage of your vulnerabilities. You should be weary of such people,” she warned.

Offer condolences: Friends, coworkers and persons close to the deceased should make contact with grieving relatives. “They should not avoid talking to the person because they don’t know what to say. This would be worse than saying the wrong thing as the person might think that you don’t care at all. Just let the bereaved know you are sorry for their loss and offer help if you are able,” she said.

Give a listening ear: Relatives, friends and coworkers can call and check in to see how the bereaved is doing and to just listen if the person is struggling to come to grips with the death and needs to talk. “Keep connected to each other using the means available to you. Keep the lines of communication open so each person can have a chance to air their feelings,” she suggested.
If you can, assist with funeral arrangements: Grieving relatives may be unable to handle funeral arrangements on their own. If this is the case, friends and coworkers can offer to assist to lighten the load.

Do not be nosy or insensitive: Refrain from trying to pump persons for information about the death, and avoid rushing persons to feel better.
Persons who are struggling to cope emotionally with death may seek psychological support by calling the COVID-19 hotline at 536-4500. The call will be directed to a mental health professional.