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Grieving When You Can’t Gather

Grieving when you can’t gather: Coping with loss during social distancing

Humans are social creatures. When looking as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the impulse for human connection is paramount to us evolving as individuals. Without a sense of love and belonging, we cannot experience the strength and esteem needed for self-actualization. It’s innate in us to find likeness, to seek comfort. We explore studies of individuals who are experiencing solitary confinement for crimes and we see the impact on our mental health. Harlow’s study shows that we will seek out comfort before even food. And if there’s anything that this pandemic has taught us, it’s that we enjoy and seek out the physical proximity of others during times of stress. Replacements such as Zoom, Skype, etc., are just that: Replacements.


Grief is the process we go through in response to experiencing some sort of loss. We have emotional responses to grief and physical responses. It’s a complex, messy process. The entire country is going through a collective grief right now. We’re grieving the changes in our lifestyles, the loss of employment for some, and for a sad many, the death of friends and loved ones due to the virus. Someone asked the other day, right under a Facebook post about attending a Zoom funeral: How do we grieve when we can’t gather? What does grief look like during social distancing?


I ask people about ritual often. We carry many rituals with us in our lives, sometimes so subtle that they become subconscious. Ritual can be a way to remember and facilitate the grieving process without breaking social distancing. It’s a singular change involving both the social and psychological bonds of the living with the deceased. Our ways of honoring the dead have moved beyond the time of throwing people into volcanoes and we no longer mummify our loved ones. Our new rituals can be as complicated or as simple as needed. It can be centered around the joys or passions of the deceased- i.e., a family fishing trip in lieu of a funeral. Rituals are often about recalling- it can be the pulling out of photo albums and hours of storytelling over coffee. In my family, where we have had our share of death, bereavement tacos have become tradition. Nothing fancy- ground beef, taco seasoning, and all the fixin’s. This is a good reminder that traditions or rituals don’t have to necessarily make sense or be fancy. Is there an aspect of your family tradition that you can take part in, even from afar?  If your family hasn’t created a tradition- either intentionally or accidentally, it may be time to create one. (I think my family just likes tacos and it’s easy to make for a variety of eaters.) In a session last week, we brainstormed the idea of “Zoom Brunch Karaoke” to honor established traditions (Mother’s Day brunch) as well as fond memories of the lost loved one (a matriarch who instilled a love of music in all her kids). “Funerals are for the living” is a common phrase, and quite accurate. Whatever you decide is to facilitate your mourning process. That may look a little different or unusual to people on the outside- including the person who passed.  That’s okay.

Food and Mourning

Speaking of tacos, food has been integrated in grieving for thousands of years and can serve us now as we mourn during Covid-19. Food has been left at the altar and with the deceased to take with them to the afterlife. Dishes are presented to mourners as a form of connection and showing sympathy. These dishes are usual centered around comfort. I remember attending a celebration of life and seeing five buckets of fried chicken, from various places, at the potluck gathering. Next to it, pies, casseroles, and cakes- not a salad in sight. Making the meal can be a ritual in itself, as it takes time and thought. If you aren’t able to gather due to social distancing, making a dish- something that was a favorite of the loved one or a popular family meal, can be very therapeutic. Many people during this pandemic have taken to baking bread from scratch, which is lovely. Bread takes nurturing and time. A lot of thought can occur during kneading and rising. Not only are we bringing back important skills, but that process can be so meditative and grounding. Many people in the throws of grief can forget to eat. Making food, especially for someone else, can also be a reminder at this time to take care of ourselves.


The pandemic has brought out the artistic side of many people. Yarn is sold out and Facebook keeps trying to convince me that I have time for a giant Paint by Numbers. Channeling your feeling- anger, sadness, anxiety- into a creative process can be helpful for mourning. Whatever your medium may be- painting, clay, writing, or music– let imperfection be the standard. Grief is a messy, complicated process. As this type of art is more about expression than innovation, there’s more space for whatever may flow from you. If you don’t believe yourself to be particularly artistic or creative, simply pounding rhythmically on a drum has been shown to improve mood. Art can also be a reminder and opportunity to look for the beauty in each day, which may otherwise feel dark and ugly.

Time and Space

This is less of a tool and more of a reminder: Grief is hard. The typical loss event takes the average person a year to heal from.  Being stuck in the time vortex of social distancing, staying at home, and quarantining can make it seem that we’ve felt this way forever. Give yourself time and space. Let the mourning come as it does. Notice how to it starts, shifts, and comes back around. You may be surprised by reminders and taken aback by sudden waves of emotion.  This is all normal. Make space for yourself and this experience. And, if you need someone to hold space for you in this process, contact us

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