Are COVID restrictions delaying our grieving or mourning process?
Grief is a natural and personal response to loss, and it is lifelong, but the rituals that mark how we mourn a loved one have been compromised and disrupted by not being able to congregate in person due to COVID-19.
Yet the fact that those rituals, like everything else, have quickly found virtual substitutes can still be viewed as a step in a positive direction.
"The point is not necessarily that we have to gather as a large group in order to still keep these rituals. The point is to have some kind of ritual in place," Jesse Bassett, director of education at Morristown-based Good Grief, said.
Bassett said grief is not neat and orderly, and would ebb and flow even under normal circumstances.
And for years, said Mary Robinson, executive director of Imagine, a "center for coping with loss" in Mountainside, the internet has carved out a powerful role in the sharing of mementos and memories of those we've lost. Virtual spaces are now serving to encourage healthy conversations about grief, and how we express it through mourning.
"When we could be with the people we loved, mourning didn't always happen," Robinson said. "Not everybody knows that, oh, I'm supposed to actually do something to take care of myself and deal with all these feelings."
Although people may recognize that that signifies mourning, that part of loss may be delayed because virus-related restrictions and gathering limits mean that we may not be able to be with people when they die — to touch them, hug them, hold their hand, say "I love you," or be around other people having the same experience.
Robinson's belief is that "the world is driven by unresolved grief," which she said may manifest as physical disgust, depression, or other unhealthy ways of processing one's feelings.
"That's what those of us in this field are kind of curious about, is really what the fallout will be in terms of complicating the grieving process or the mourning process," she said. "People may experience more guilt or regret."
Another aspect of loss currently suspended, these experts say, is the cognitive dissonance of having someone present one day, and gone the next, especially if that person cannot receive visitors in his or her final days.
Will the eventual lifting of gathering limits and social distancing open Pandora's Box, once we might be otherwise able to see a person who has died? Hard to say.
But one thing both Bassett and Robinson both emphasize is focusing on helping children cope with loss as seamlessly as possible. Bassett said kids are overwhelmingly tactile learners, who might need to see and touch in order to grasp the reality and permanence of death.
"We might have to go the extra mile here in holding open and honest conversations with our kids through this time to help them understand what is happening," he said.
For the rest of us, the changes in the rituals of death may actually provide an enhanced chance to stop, slow down, and reflect on what a particular person's life has meant, so that we are not stuck in the cycle of mourning for an indefinite period of time.