How is COVID-19 affecting how people grieve?

COVID-19 has left many on the cancer journey feeling alone and isolated, said Michael Williams, a Wellness House psychologist.

Patients have to go to treatment alone while their caregiver waits in the car. Support groups can no longer meet in person and must be held via Zoom.

And when someone dies, the pandemic prevents people from reaching out the way they normally would. Intimate caregivers, who have been in fifth gear trying to support their loved one through this difficult time, often suffer the most.

“All of the usual things that help people come in for a smooth landing are not in the usual intuitive places,” Williams said. “It’s often a rough landing for people, a crash landing for people.

“It’s a double trauma — the blow of the person dying and now what would help them cope they don’t have.”

Wellness House, which switched to virtual program delivery the day it closed its doors in March, has been working to compensate for that lack of in-person contact.

One benefit of virtual meetings of the bereavement group Williams facilitates is that family members who live elsewhere in Illinois are able to participate. And even on screen, he finds ways to help participants connect through “microinteractions.”

“Part of the texture that helps that culture be sustained over Zoom is people are Zooming in from their homes or their offices,” he said. “There’s their cat, there’s their dog, there are the voices of their loved ones.”

So Williams will ask a participant to talk about a pet or a plant that is visible in the background.

“It’s how we are made as humans, to take in information about our fellow traveling humans. The same in grief,” he said.

He also encourages participants to share what is helping them process their grief during these unusual times, such as spending more time outdoors, FaceTiming with relatives or finding way to practice their religion other than attending services (saying prayers, for example).

For some, the loss of a relative or friend can make the dangers of COVID-19 less of a concern. They might think, “What does it matter anymore? Who cares if I wear a mask?” Williams said. He reassures them their loved one would want them to remain safe.

Others find the way the pandemic has changed their lives offers comforts as they grieve.

“There are also people who say, to my own surprise, ‘This has been a blessing, COVID, because I’m at home more, and so I’m here sequestered with the rest of my family while I am missing my loved one who has died. In some ways, because of COVID, I have more connectedness during this time of grief,’ ” he said.

Others find their journey has better prepared them to deal with COVID-19, which, like cancer, has many unknowns.

“There are people who have said, ‘Boy, because of cancer I have muscles that have helped me deal with COVID,’ ” he said.

— by Pamela Lannom

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean