Grief counselors offer advice for those who have lost a loved one to COVID-19

Brittany Jean-Louis (left) and Rebecca Sharbono share advice about getting through the holidays after losing a loved one to COVID-19.
Brittany Jean-Louis (left) and Rebecca Sharbono share advice about getting through the holidays after losing a loved one to COVID-19. (Courtesy photos)

MIAMI – Thousands of South Florida families will spend the holidays with an empty seat at the table after losing a loved one to COVID-19.

Ahead of what may be a difficult holiday season for many South Florida families, Local 10 News spoke with two grief counselors currently working with families who have lost a loved one to the virus.

Brittany Jean-Louis is a therapist, grief expert, speaker, and mental health advocate. She is the content advisor for Still Kickin and the CEO of a mental health clinic, A Freeman’s Place Counseling, LLC, where she and her staff serve adolescents, women, and families. Rebecca Sharbono manages Still Kickin’s programs and online communities, including the Hot Young Widows Club.

Their responses in this Q&A have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What have you experienced when it comes to grieving amid a pandemic?

Brittany: I have experienced something called cumulative grief, which I am sure many people can relate to especially in 2020. Cumulative grief is the experience of multiple losses back to back. I call my experience with cumulative grief, the “grief trifecta” — losing my father in 2017, my mother in 2018 and my husband in 2019. With losing my husband in December 2019, I took three months away from my day job and by the time I went back to work, it was time to come back home and shelter in place due to the pandemic. I prepared to reroute my entire counseling business. Therefore, I packed up my counseling office, moved the entire office into storage, prepared my clinical staff for teletherapy and prepped our clients for this new counseling experience. Being a CEO of a counseling agency, I was inundated with ritualistic tasks and brand-new tasks as I had to dive headfirst into managing a counseling agency in the beginning of a pandemic. I had two staff that tested positive for COVID in the beginning of March, which was another reason we closed down the office sooner than later; safety was first. I watched for instructions from the New Jersey governor, watched for updates from my licensing board and watched for updates from insurance companies on how they were handling paying for telehealth services for clients. There has been a heavy to-do list and on top of being a CEO, I have a small caseload of five individuals, all that have been in some way directly or indirectly managing grief from COVID. Not necessarily the grief of physically losing a person to death yet losing some intangible things including the loss of safety and the loss of control. I did all of this without my person. Again, sparking my own grief; not just the primary loss of him but the secondary loss of him, his function in my life as a helper, contributor, encourager and comic relief in hard times.

Rebecca: My experience in grieving during this pandemic has involved a lot of reflection (what the heck is happening and what is time, exactly?), learning (how do I show up for people in this new normal, how do I care for myself and get what I need to keep moving forward?), losing people and also losing a sense of normalcy (spending time with my friends, taking my kids places, traveling the country ... being able to take time away from my family when I just need a break ... anyone else?). I lost my grandfather several months ago. And I lost my niece a month ago. In some ways, it doesn’t feel like I lost them because there wasn’t any of the stuff that usually comes along with losing a person. I did not gather with my family in the same way and did not hug my relatives or cry together. But there was still sadness. In my work, we talk a ton about grief and loss. Still Kickin was created out of grief after our founder, Nora McInerny lost her first husband. We exist to help people through the hard stuff. While my time of reflection has mostly been wondering why I can’t remember what day it is or why my brain feels so mushy and why I’m so tired or annoyed with my husband and kids, one thing I do know for sure is that along with COVID, we are experiencing a global pandemic of grief and loss. I’ve been living in this. We all have.

For those who lost a loved one due to complications with COVID-19, what are some challenges the pandemic poses to the grief process?

Brittany: One major thing is the loss of rituals. There are over 40 types of losses that cause grief. Of course, when we lose someone to death, we grieve the tangible loss of that person not being in the present with us. However, there are some intangible losses that contribute to grief. One of those intangible losses has been the loss of rituals. Our loved ones have passed away due to COVID and families are not able to have the traditional goodbye ceremonies for their loved ones. Due to certain state restrictions, many people have had to either choose cremation, have a smaller service or even have a live stream of a funeral for loved ones to watch from home. The pain of losing a loved one has now been even more complicated due to the inability of participating in cultural and familial traditions. That is another loss. Due to the physical loss of a loved one, a loss of rituals, a loss of control, this can cause complicated grief. Complicated grief can be defined as feelings of loss that don’t improve over time. Of course, a person that loses a loved one does not get over their loved one; we go through grief, we don’t get over it. Furthermore, over time, some emotions do subside a bit and we can manage our grief a bit better than in the beginning.

Another challenge is social distancing. We have been mandated by our states to not only practice social distancing in public areas but also with our friends and families. We have been told to limit social gatherings or to not gather at all due to cases rising. That can be detrimental to a grieving person, not being able to see friends and family after a loved one passes away. When someone dies and you experience grief, it is already very isolated. Grief is so individualized, no one can ever understand the pain of losing someone you loved because that relationship was unique and special to that person. So when that person passes away, it can be extremely lonely. Adding social distancing restrictions to the griever is difficult, however social distancing does not mean social isolation. Therefore, those that are grieving can find creative ways to stay connected to friends and family. We can FaceTime, Zoom or talk on the phone with loved ones. We can meet in parking lots to have coffee or lunch while in our cars, we can even start writing letters to each other to continue staying connected.

Rebecca: There are so many challenges that this pandemic poses to the grief process and Britt explained it so well. The loss of community and rituals is incredibly difficult for a grieving person. And to piggyback on that, it can be hard to figure out how to support someone who has lost someone (grief adjacent). So our grief supporters also face a challenge. Let’s be honest, it can be difficult to know what to say or do when we are not in a pandemic. Add that COVID layer into the situation and we find that we can’t even sit with our friend/griever. We can’t hold them and comfort them like we could when we didn’t have social distancing guidelines. But, we can still show up for our grievers who lost someone by checking in with them regularly (send a text or note), dropping off groceries or having meals delivered to their home. We still might mess it up and say or do the wrong thing but it’s important to do something because it shows that we are with them in their loss. If you’re interested in knowing more about supporting a griever, take a look at What Not to Say To a Grieving Person and How to Show Up (When You Can’t Show Up).

What is some advice for people grieving during this especially difficult time?

Brittany: People should know that grief is the natural and very normal reaction to any type of significant loss. This means that people should pace themselves during this difficult time. Don’t judge yourself if you are feeling sad, angry, disappointed, lonely or numb. These are all very normal emotions (plus some) that are associated with grief. Do not bury those emotions, do not rush through this process. Give yourself time to grieve. Grief is very unpredictable. One moment you may feel like things are OK and in other moments you may feel like quitting and doing nothing for the day. There is an ebb and flow of grief and it is important to ride the wave:

  • Part of riding that wave is understanding your triggers. Triggers are experiences that ignite intense emotion. We should be aware of what these triggers are especially when the intense emotions are distressing emotions. Once we identify triggers we can identify ways to manage those triggers.
  • Another way to ride the wave is to create a wellness plan. A wellness plan helps you to stay focused on how you will take care of yourself when triggered. Coping skills are to assist you on decreasing distressing emotions. Coping skills can be: journaling, reading, deep breathing, etc. Coping skills help to create positive experiences which elevate your mood.
  • Create a structure for your days. Go at your pace! Make sure the structure is a very loose structure! Most of us are working from home during this time and it’s important to create a routine so you don’t lose valuable time. Losing time can be a trigger for distressing emotions as it leaves your mind to wander. So although work is structured, make sure you structure a wake-up time, meal times, relax time, time with family/friends via calls or FaceTime and a bedtime structure.
  • Be kind to yourself. Grief is a marathon and not a sprint. Learn to hold space for multiple emotions at the same time. If you laugh during your time of grieving, that is OK.

Rebecca: If you are grieving during this difficult time, know that it is normal. Repeat that a few times out loud. And then a few more times. It is OK to feel the way you feel. It can be so uncomfortable but allow yourself to be in it for a bit. Don’t rush it. Find a way to communicate with someone (or in some way like journaling) what you are experiencing. If you need to binge that Netflix show, do it. If you need to order a pizza (or two), do it. Extend yourself some grace — the same way you would to a friend who is grieving. You deserve that.

Rebecca also mentioned how people are experiencing grief in terms of a loss of normalcy. Can you expand on that and explain how the holiday season may be yet another contributing factor and advice for people feeling this grief?

Brittany: Yes, as said before there are tangible losses that we experience which bring on grief and there are some intangible losses we experience that cause grief. Some of those intangible losses include: loss of trust, loss of safety, loss of control and loss of faith. During this pandemic all of us have experienced the loss of control. We can’t control the necessary changes that have happened to keep us all safe during this time. Some of us have experienced the loss of safety during this time as many people have been unsure what is safe and what is not. This is a new virus we knew nothing about and even in listening to experts in what they have to say about keeping us safe, there is still some paranoia with some people surrounding how to keep them and their families safe. What is a safe place to go? Can I go to the grocery store? Should I bring my kids? Should I order everything online? These are all questions some of us have asked during this time as we are uncertain about true safety. Some people have lost trust in some parts of government regarding the decisions of closing businesses down, whether or not kids should stay home or go to school and overall how long the virus has stayed in the US for so long. Finally, some people have lost faith in either a higher power especially with some congregations not being able to meet in person and having to live stream a service via computer or not being able to celebrate certain religious holidays with family or a congregation. Some tangible losses are of course the physical loss of a person and here are a few others: financial changes, loss of structure, loss of traditions, loss of health and even moving. Some people have lost their jobs due to layoffs from covid and therefore income in households are different which affect holiday time in a major way. People have lost structure. Parents that are working from home are now stepping into the role of assisting teachers as kids are doing virtual schooling; most virtual schooling has seemingly been less time than regular school hours which means that parents also have to create more structure for children which is even more challenging. There have been loss of traditions; as stated earlier those that have passed away may not have received the traditional funeral service, kids that are in school have missed out on dances, proms, graduations and not being able to see their friends during this time. Outside of education, socialization is one of the biggest factors contributing to a child’s development during these formative years. To say the least, it has been a hard time for many adults and children in 2020 and with the holidays coming up, cases rising and more restrictions coming, it will be even harder for many to move through this holiday season. So outside of the above tips of riding the wave, here are some other things to move through the holidays during the pandemic:

  • Still make plans: Make a list of 3 different types of plans that you can do during the holidays. It has been hard to plan a lot this year as the government continues to change restrictions as cases rise. So make at least 3 different plans and as you reach a few days before the holidays, pick which plan makes the most sense in the moment. Also, don’t forget to include your immediate (household) family in making these plans just to ensure everyone is comfortable and in agreement with the plan.
  • Do family check-ins: Create a time to check in with your family and ask how everyone is doing. Allow your family to express their feelings with no judgments. Ask each one in your family what their needs are; their needs could be space, affection or need to be outside of the home. Be sensitive to everyone’s needs. A validating environment is a healthy environment.
  • Take care of your physical body: Exercising naturally releases hormones that make you feel good. Identify what type of exercising you enjoy. Whether it’s walking, bike riding, Zumba, or weight training, do something for your body that will actually make your mind feel good.

Rebecca: The holiday season can be triggering for many people in general whether they’ve lost their person and are forced to relive the grief of not having that person with them during a very family-focused time of year, they have a difficult or estranged relationship with family, or it’s a time where all of the boundaries they’ve worked so hard to put in place are being shattered by others. It’s not always the most wonderful time of year for everyone.

In our society, the holidays are the time of year where you gather to celebrate the thing you’re into, and that all is merry and bright. This year, that looks very different. Traditions like going to the mall to see Santa, or heading to a holiday marketplace, or going to that party with your friends, are non-existent. And that can trigger grief.

Remember whatever emotion you’re feeling going into the holiday season is okay. You are not alone. Take what you need to show up for yourself so that you can move forward. If you need a quick and easy self-care check-in, try The 5-Minute Self-care Plan. Put boundaries in place so you can protect yourself. Connect with your people in the way that works for you: phone call, video call, text, email, etc. Don’t forget that we are all in this together!

We have heard some people who are grieving someone lost to COVID-19 are also battling online bullying from pandemic hoaxers and conspiracy theorists. Any advice for people simultaneously dealing with that at such a difficult time?

Brittany: Sadly, this is something to even address. In general part of self-care during this pandemic has been limited screen time on social media. It is important to take a step back in general as there are so many news outlets and so much news in general we have to make sure we are protecting what information is going in. Sometimes, the more information goes in, the more anxious and paranoid we become. So it is important to limit how much we watch the news and how much we are on our phones. Sadly, there are some people that don’t believe COVID exists or is a real thing. This is so invalidating to those that have lost loved ones to COVID and even people that have gotten COVID this year. So try to stay away from being on social media. Structure your time daily on social media so that you aren’t randomly going on throughout the day. When you see COVID related posts that are hurtful or harmful, scroll on by, take a breath and validate your own experience. If you need to log off, log off for the moment and do something to take care of yourself.

Rebecca: For those of you who are living through this, how incredibly upsetting. It’s never OK to be bullied or told that your experience isn’t real. You don’t need to prove your own experience to anyone. So, if you see something like this, take a beat and step away.

Anything else that you think is important to share?

Brittany: I just wanted to briefly add a few physical symptoms of grief so that people understand how grief affects us physically and mentally. Grief impacts the following: concentration, completing tasks, memory, decision making, planning, loss of appetite, feeling numb, sleeping compromised. There is a term called “grief brain”, where the griever may seem absentminded or forgetful. When it comes to the body, grief affects the parasympathetic nervous system: this system is located in the brain, specifically in the brain stem; the system manages breathing, sleep and digestion which is the reason we may not take deep breaths and have issues with appetite and issues with sleep (either getting too much or too little). Also in the brain the limbic system is in charge of emotion, memory and attention. During grief, the limbic system creates a protective response, where it resists grief as grief is perceived as a threat this is one of the reasons we may experience triggers that remind us of our losses; some of those triggers can be physical triggers where our muscles may ache, we may get headaches, we may not overall feel well. Overall, your grief affects your whole body by first hijacking the brain.

I also wanted to share that when you are grieving the loss of a loved one it is important to have support, and in many cases seek a therapist. Grief is overwhelming and it is very easy to get stuck in grief; talking to a therapist will help you to express and process very difficult feelings when family and friend support may not be enough; it is also a validating place.

Also, if you lost your significant other/romantic partner due to covid, please consider joining the Hot Young Widows Club. The Hot Young Widows Club is a program of Still Kickin, a small, women-owned benefit corporation and non-profit organization dedicated to building empathy, encouragement and economic relief. The HYWC is a group that supports those that have lost their romantic partners by providing an outlet for social interaction amongst others that have lost their partners, an opportunity to share your grief story and an opportunity to receive other grief resources.

About the Author: