In early August, I was driving from one Georgia suburb to another to attend a restricted, masked funeral for my best friend’s father — if you can call it a funeral at all. He was immunocompromised and died of Covid-19. At the service, his body was covered with a white sheet and sparse flower arrangements. My friend and her mother sat alone in the front of the state room, facing the body. They wore masks, shields, and gloves. As is customary in my friend’s Hindu culture, both mother and daughter dressed in all white.
There was no holding, no hugging, no tight grips of the hand to make it through the tears. There was hardly time to process anything at all due to the pandemic restrictions. I spent under 30 seconds in that room with them, with the body. I walked down the aisle, set my flowers on the white sheet, and only had my eyes to express my grief.
When we see a loved one grieving, we may be inclined to reach out and put an arm around their shoulder, grip their hand tight, wipe away their tears, or kiss them on the cheek. We might spend every waking moment glued to their skin, brushing their hair in the morning and feeding them spoonfuls at mealtime. But deep in the throes of a global pandemic, in the absence of safe physical contact, showing up for our grieving friends and family is complicated and can feel impossible.
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“Touch is the most elemental way of calming distress,” says Leah Guttman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in New York. “It’s embedded in our biology as humans.” Think of a caregiver rocking a wailing newborn or a new mother holding her child against her chest for skin-to-skin contact. That physical touch, she says, is believed to help stabilize a baby’s heart rate and improve its breathing. And in the darkest pain, even in adulthood, people often tend to enter a similar childlike state — crawling into a ball of tears, unable to speak, craving touch.
Twenty-six-year-old Ebuka Anokute was all alone in his Harlem apartment, juggling two phones in his hands, when he learned his father, who he called his most trusted advisor, his confidante, his homie, had died at a Westchester hospital in New York from Covid-19. On one screen was his girlfriend, who was living in Memphis at the time — and on the other, his brother, who had been at home with their parents.
It would be another two weeks before Anokute would be able to meet his grieving mother, who was also recovering from Covid-19 symptoms and had been in the hospital with her husband when he passed just days from their wedding anniversary in early April. When mother and son finally reunited while wearing masks, she draped a bedsheet over her body just to embrace him and feel his touch.
“I underestimated how much I needed to be hugged,” he says.
For those of us who can’t be there to offer a hug to our grieving friends and family — or if the risk of transmission is too great — Guttman says there are still ways to mirror the effects of physical touch using other sensory connections.
“Religious and cultural practices are oftentimes the very things that help us in resolving our grief or offering closure, so when we’re not able to access them, then we’re kind of stuck.”
One of Guttman’s grieving patients, for example, said a good friend of hers suggested they listen to a meaningful piece of music together over video chat. “It was this unique way of being connected to the lost one and also connected to the friend at the same time,” says Guttman. “She cried through it, but she knew she wasn’t crying alone.”
Sandra Lopez, a Texas-based Mexican American clinical social worker with decades of experience as a multicultural grief and trauma expert, says there’s also the loss of cultural rituals in grief. “Religious and cultural practices are oftentimes the very things that help us in resolving our grief or offering closure, so when we’re not able to access them, then we’re kind of stuck,” she says.
In Anokute’s Nigerian culture, for example, when there’s a death, the entire community usually rallies together, cooking for and cleaning the house of the grieving. The family isn’t supposed to do anything but make room for grief, Anokute says. In April, however, the coronavirus pandemic restricted in-person memorializing to masked and gloved drive-bys and drop-offs.
“It really bothered my mom,” he says. “She felt like we were lepers.”
Without an end timeframe for the pandemic, Lopez says “we may need to be creative in finding and integrating other practices.” For close loved ones of the grieving, that could be as simple as asking the funeral home to integrate pieces of one’s culture in the celebration of life ceremony. Loved ones can discuss customs with the funeral director and staffers and try to find alternatives, whether that involves a drive-by ceremony or digital events, such as a virtual shiva or a livestreamed prayer from the state room.
Emma Payne, founder of the personalized text messaging service Grief Coach, which involves experts in sending supportive text reminders to those who have suffered loss and to the people who love them, also recommends supporters set calendar reminders of important cultural holidays — especially if any such holidays serve to honor the dead — and then encouraging supporters to ask their friends about how they and their lost one used to celebrate together.
“While there’s no set of perfect words, words can, especially now, also be a powerful tool for consolation,” Payne says. “The golden gem rule that seems to be true for the majority of people is to actually talk about the person who’s died and to use their name,” something we tend to shy away from in American culture, where it’s custom to look for ways to cheer up or distract the grieving.
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It’s natural for supporters to recoil at seeing our friends cry or in pain, adds Guttman. “Our inclination is to offer a silver lining, to say ‘Everything will be okay.’” But silver lining phrases like “they’re in a better place” actually better serve to alleviate our own discomfort and do little to nothing to help the grieving.
“When someone dies,” Payne says, it’s important to realize that “the relationship with that person is not over. It has profoundly changed, yes, but it’s not over.” Recalling memories and surpassing the stigma associated with the nervous, awkward silence of grief “is actually immensely healing.”
When Susan Stitt’s husband, Evan, lost his father in April, they were states away from the rest of the family. In their small South Georgia town of Senoia, where the main street is only two blocks long, the isolation was suffocating. Then some good friends who owned a small barbecue restaurant invited them over for dinner and closed the restaurant to the public. They sat apart at an eight-foot-long communal table and listened all night as Stitt’s husband told story after story about his father through tears and through laughter.
“It was just the most remarkable thing anyone’s ever done for us,” Stitt says. “And just what my husband needed.”