Mourning the death of a loved one during the pandemic (Op-Ed)

By Anna Popnikolova

1.7 million people have died from COVID-19 so far. That’s 1.7 million families, millions of kids, spouses, siblings, who were left behind. 1.7 million people who probably thought… this shouldn’t be so bad. Families who argued, they’re a fighter. It’s going to be alright

But then, your mother walks in the next morning with tears in her eyes and tells you your grandmother didn’t make it through the night. Just like how my mother walked into my room and told me my grandmother had passed away from COVID.

For me, on the first day, everything made me want to cry. From dropping something on the ground to any mention of my grandmother, everything brought the sadness back. And the next day, I was numb. I couldn’t cry, no matter how sad I was, no matter how hard I tried. The tears didn’t come. 

Grief is strange like that. Everyone experiences it differently. Someone may cry, while another may remain stoic. One person might lose their appetite for weeks, while another may stress or binge-eat to cover up the sadness. There is no “right” way to grieve the loss of a loved one. There is no definitive course of action when you lose someone. Additionally, no “time period” of mourning after bereavement has been set. It can take months, even years, to entirely achieve closure after losing someone who was close to you. 

And the holidays can just make the feeling that much worse. My grandparents live in Bulgaria. That’s 4,613 miles away. We’ve never visited them for the holidays. Usually, we just facetime, say “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year.” I suppose we’ll do that again this year. Except it’ll be different. Of course, it’ll be different. 

To anyone else who feels the same way, I get it. I do. It’s terrible, and you just want everything to feel alright again. You can’t bring them back, and you can’t stop thinking about it. Maybe you should’ve given them one last phone call. Maybe you should have given them a hug when you saw them last. Maybe you should have realized how important they were to you.

And people can say a million things, can’t they? Your friends can say I’m so sorry for your loss, and teachers can send their condolences, everyone in the world can give you a million apologies plus one. It’ll feel nice to know people care. But in the long run, you know it doesn’t change anything. You know that condolences cannot rewind the days and send you back in time. I can’t go back and tell my grandma to stop working at the hospital, because something bad is going to happen. I can’t go back in time and send her one last message before she gets sick. No one can.

So, you just learn to accept it. I suppose, no matter how impossible that seems, no matter how difficult it is to stop thinking about it, you must. Put it away, if only for a minute. I promise, it’ll feel better eventually. Maybe not now. Not today, or next week. Possibly even not even next month. But it will feel better. It always gets better.

There are things which you can do to think of them in happy ways, rather than from a mourning perspective. If you feel up to it, listen to music that your loved one used to listen to. Try to smile when you think about them. Think about something they used to say, or do. Maybe a little habit of theirs, something that made you laugh. Remember a happy memory you have with them. Don’t think about the sad stuff. The more you think about it, the more it’ll stick. Slowly, try to let it go. Try to be around other people, no matter how alone you want to be. Psychologically, it’s better for you to have others around you. Hug someone; physical contact is proven to lower your stress and anxiety levels. You don’t have to push the grief away, you don’t have to act happy, or pretend you’re ok when you’re not. Grieve for as long as you need to. It’s human, it’s natural to cry, to be sad. Your sadness is valid, and pushing it away or suppressing it will only make it worse. Try to mix some positive, or if not positive, even just neutral emotions into your day somewhere

And as Christmas and the New Year, or any other holiday you and your family may celebrate, come and go, try to feel the holiday spirit. Do not try to ignore the absence of that person in your celebrations, rather refer to the topic with happiness. It may help to bring up memories you have with your loved one on that specific holiday, happy memories. If you pray on Christmas or believe spiritually otherwise, remind them that you are thinking of them. Remind yourself that it is alright to be happy, it is healthy to smile and celebrate the holidays with your family. The last thing you should do is feel guilty for being happy, being ok. You do not have to feel sad all the time, nor do you have to feel happy. You don’t even have to know what emotions you feel. Anything you are going through right now is valid, your feelings are valid, and receiving that validation is a lot more healthy for your healing mind than trying to suppress emotions. Remember that it’s alright to feel. Embrace it, and trust me, the pieces will bring themselves back together someday. 

Take this as your message to do something nice for yourself today. Leave your room. Make some tea. Take a hot shower. Eat something, if you haven’t today. Listen to music… not the sad music you’ve been listening to. Listen to the music you liked before. Watch a funny movie, or a kid’s movie—a film which you used to watch as a kid, something that will make you nostalgic. Nostalgia is a coping mechanism, it can help you heal and inspire you to move forward, make you feel less lonely. 

When my grandmother passed away, I spent the next days out of school, painting and writing. I fell into a creative sphere, and I let my emotions into the work I was doing. To any other artists like myself, the mourning process, while a terrible thing to go through and difficult for me and my family to overcome, was also a creative experience for me. The artwork which came out of my grandmother’s death was unlike anything I’ve created before. Involving yourself in various activities, like art, is another healthy coping mechanism. 

When you let yourself become entirely immersed into a project or an activity, it can boost the process of neurogenesis in your hippocampus—the production of new neurons in your brain. The hippocampus, a part of the brain which controls emotions, is easily damaged by experiences like the loss of a family member, which is generally where the idea of “grief” comes from. Physical activity, like exercise, creating new memories and mental activities, like creating art and meditating are all mechanisms which help to heal parts of your brain and help you overcome strong emotions like those present in mourning.

To help heal over the holidays, another fun and healthy thing to do is to bake a family recipe, or follow a holiday family tradition. Maybe grandma’s chocolate chip cookies were always the ones you left for Santa on Christmas Eve—baking them again could bring back some happy holiday memories you have with your grandmother, even if she is no longer with you. Maybe grandpa really loved that generic, store bought fruitcake, and everyone else in your family hated it. Sing songs and give presents and remember to be thankful for the family you have with you. Be grateful for everything you have, and take it all in around you. That’s the true purpose of the holidays—try to take advantage of it.

And remember that, no matter how much you miss them, and no matter how you wish to travel back, see them one more time, change the outcome of fate, you cannot. The only thing you can do is try to take care of yourself, remember that it is natural and even healthy to be sad, and remind yourself that there will be a time when you do not feel the pain anymore. Try to remember your loved one with happy memories, and make sure that you honor their memory. 

I remember something one of my teachers, who I won’t name, said to me in an email in response to me informing them that I wouldn’t be in class that day because of the passing of my grandmother. They gave me their condolences and said, your grandmother must have been very proud of you. That line was the one thing which managed to make me cry on that second day, when everything seemed numb. It is something which tears me up even now, because I’d like to think she was proud of me, as I am named after her. I’d like to think that I made her proud, at least once in her life. And I’ll carry her name with pride, and I’ll hold her with me. 

So, to anyone who is going through this experience currently, all I’d like to say in conclusion is: I am sure they were very proud of you.

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