mental health

How to Process Grief While You're Stuck in Lockdown

After a family member died of coronavirus, I asked an expert for help.
06 May 2020, 4:50am
Someone looking out their window and seeing coronavirus particles floating in the air
Illustration: MATTEO DANG MINH.

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

The lockdown is forcing us to ask ourselves a ton of questions: about our relationship to ourselves, the outside world and others. So we've started a regular feature as a space to collect our thoughts, turn them into questions and have them answered by an expert. This is the second instalment. Read the first instalment here.

Question: While I was stuck in quarantine alone, I found out that a family member was sick. I learned more about it little by little, getting sugar-coated information over the phone. I've spent these last few weeks in limbo, alternating between being aware of the gravity of the situation and total detachment – as if what was happening wasn’t real because I couldn’t see it, even if the person was near and dear to me.

I had a constant sense of helplessness, which culminated in asking the people I'd normally be hugging tightly during a moment like that to send me a picture of the family member's coffin. I think many others are going through similar situations in this period. So my question is: how do I deal with this sense of powerlessness? How do I process the grief of losing a loved one without being there?

Answer from Marilena Iasevoli, psychotherapist specialised in relationship issues:
Social distancing is often seen as an obstacle, but we should also think of it as an opportunity for reflection. Our society pushes us to constantly do our best, which can be exhausting at times. Basically, it’s natural to feel powerless, and that could be useful – don't feel guilty about it or try to reject it. Accepting your physical and mental limits can be liberating. It makes you realise who you are: a human being, sometimes inconsistent and contradictory in your relationships with others and with yourself.

There are infinite types of family dynamics, so it is crucial for you to understand what type of communication you want to establish with your relatives. What do you need while being far away? Do you need to know how the person is doing? Do you need to talk to them (if that's possible)? Do you need to call their doctor? Do you need to let the people around them know they can call you anytime? Sharing your feelings can also be very powerful, because suffering can either bring you closer to others or push them away if you close in on yourself.

When a loved one dies, the grieving process follows a model developed by psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. I’ll briefly summarise its five stages: denial, when you reject the facts; anger, with yourself, with others or with the situation; bargaining, when you try to find rational justifications; depression, when you surrender emotionally and rationally; and finally acceptance of reality. Obviously these phases aren't static – you can go through the first ones even before the person has passed – but they are a framework to explain grief.

There are no studies about how grief is processed from a distance during a pandemic, but psychology has never been as important as today, so data will be gathered when all this is over. Based on how my patients have experienced long-distance grief in the past, I can say their process has deviated from the model in two differing ways.

In the first case, people experience everything quicker, without fully processing the emotions. The result is a sort of false acceptance, because you think you've overcome the situation without having fully experienced it, only to relapse when, for example, you return to a place you used to share with the person who's passed.

In the second case, the process slows. You're stuck for longer at the denial or depression stage, postponing all the complex work of releasing the pain to the moment when you're finally allowed to participate in a funeral and hug your loved ones. Basically, you feel like you are missing a piece of the puzzle that lets you move forward.

In both cases, I suggest you don’t shy away from experiencing your pain. Pain often feels like something immovable, but actually it is a process, a movement towards the person you will be when this is over.

Finally, while you’re still stuck at home, try to create symbols and rituals that can bring you comfort. You could write a letter to the deceased, or send them a voice message, or post a picture with a long commemorative caption on Instagram. You could light a candle and drink a glass of wine in their memory. And cry. Crying is an opportunity to grow.

This article originally appeared on VICE IT.