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10 Tips for Grieving in a Pandemic

10 Tips for Grieving in a Pandemic

by J. Dana Trent, author, Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life

In even the most “normal” circumstances, a loved one’s death shreds our hearts like a spiritual cheese grater. But enduring a loss in a pandemic? Words are not adequate to convey the heaviness of this type of grief.

“Unprecedented” is ubiquitous lately, and with good reason. We are accustomed to being bedside with loved ones when they die. Whether in hospitals, hospices, or nursing homes, we’ve sat with loved ones as they took their last breaths amid ample comfort measures, hand-holding, and physical goodbyes. In my work as an ICU “Death Chaplain,” families were never prohibited from visiting patients near death. Restrictions were lifted; the medical staff and I knew that being bedside at death was as important as welcoming a child at birth. COVID has changed all of that.

Essential hospital personnel are heartbroken to facilitate FaceTime and walkie-talkie goodbyes. Chaplains fill in patients’ and families’
spiritual care gap needs when, where, and how they can. But amid quarantines, PPE shortages, and isolation, how we die—and grieve—is shifting. How do we cope with our losses when we cannot be bedside, nor gathered, nor embraced?

Here are ten tips and tools to help you grieve when everything has changed.

Tip 1: Remember that this is unusual and temporary. Even if COVID’s timeline remains uncertain, history has taught us that pandemics do not last forever. We will gather again. Physical proximity will resume. Though we do not have specifics, history is on the side of human closeness.

Tip 2: Acknowledge feelings. Meanwhile, as we wait, acknowledge your feelings—all of them. I realize what a disservice I did in my own grief when I muted with busyness my anger, denial, fear, resentment, sadness, and loneliness. Instead of filling the time with work and stuff, embrace the time to process.

Tip 3: Use productive tools. Journaling, list-making, doodles, and worry jars are helpful tools used to uncover and process grief feelings. Keep a COVID grief diary of your experience. Dessert First began as a list of feelings in a dollar-store composition notebook. 

4: Tell stories about your loved ones. Whether they died yesterday, six months ago, six years ago, or six decades ago, keeping your loved one’s name and memory alive can be accomplished through narratives. Even if your family gatherings to remember via Zoom, FaceTime, or phone, oral tradition remains an essential part of humanity. Following my father’s untimely death, our family still recounts “King” stories of midnight bike rides and he and his brothers running the streets of Indiana corn towns. The ritual of storytelling—in any format, is one of the most poignant ways of coping with loss.

Tip 5: Use tangible rituals of remembrance. Candles are my favorite, as they represent the “light” that remains with us through the comfort of memory. In the Jewish tradition, Yahrzeit candles are lit in remembrance of loved ones on the anniversaries of their deaths. In all traditions, candles and/or LED tea lights acknowledge the spark of the deceased—their legacy that remains with us in life.  

Tip 6: Embrace holy relics. In his book Spoken into Being, Michael Williams writes of the “holy relics”—physical belongings of our loved ones. They may be broken or battered, useless and dried up, but we cannot throw them away—because they are sacred. Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking kept a black alarm clock her husband had given her that stopped working the year before he died. I keep my father’s black Timex alarm clock, along with the silliest things my mother held on to: a small painted turtle we got her the month before she died from a small coal town in Pennsylvania. She loved that turtle and kept it by her side on a T.V. tray bobbing its flexible head and delighting in its bright colors.

Tip 7: Read about grief. The grief “classics” are readily available from your online bookstore. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was published just before my chaplaincy year. Didion writes that the “literature” on grief [is] spare, “given that grief remained the most general of afflictions” (Didion 44). She’s right; but here are my go-to grief books and resources.

Tip 8: Turn to ancient wisdom. Sacred texts, poetry, prose—humanity has no shortage of stories that comfort and guide in times of lament. Psalms 121, 130, and 91 are a good place to start. If you are not religious or spiritual literature is not your thing, try The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran or Mary Oliver poetry.

Tip 9: Replicate traditional gathering rituals for quarantine situations. Graveside rituals are common in religious and nonreligious instances, such as shoveling the first scoop of dirt on a coffin after it has been lowered or laying a flower on a casket as a final goodbye. Right now, in lieu of in-person funerals and graveside services, you can replicate these two rituals at home outdoors, including hymn sings, sacred readings, and prayers.

Tip 10: Above all, embrace permission to grieve—even amid a pandemic. When the grief counselor once told me I had permission to grieve—and that my deep sadness could and would be triggered by memories, scents, books, movies, a funny saying or food, I finally relinquished. I realized that I needed—and we all need—permission to fall apart right in the middle of whatever we are doing, whether at home in a quarantine or in the middle of being an essential worker.

These are catastrophic times, to be sure. But may we be comforted by the fact that we are not alone in our grief. Each day humans around the world lose loved ones closest to them—and they are doing so under the strangest of circumstances. We are all finding our way, muddling through death in the era of COVID. May these tips and tools offer us peace, comfort, space, and most of all—permission.

Dana Trent is a graduate of Duke University and the award-winning author of four books, including Dessert First: Preparing for Death while Savoring Life. As a world religions professor and Louisville Institute grant recipient, her work has appeared on Writing For Your Life,, USA Today, Religion Dispatches, and in Sojourners andThe Christian Century. She is  a thought-leader on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, fostering community conversation at the intersection of faith and crisis.


Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash








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