Through times of loss, it is human connection that brings us comfort and hope. Amidst these unprecedented times of COVID-19, humans around the world are attempting to cope with a unique kind of loss. For many, this comes in the form of losing their sense of normalcy and everyday routine, a type of grieving that for most of us is unchartered territory. For individuals who have lost someone they love, or fear that loss happening while in quarantine, there is an additional kind of grief that makes these uncertain times especially challenging.

Sylvia Havlish, a professional grief counselor for over 40 years, knows first-hand how difficult life has been for those grieving through the unique circumstances of COVID-19. On a normal day, Sylvia hosts grief groups in partnership with Lutheran Congregational Services (LCS) for bereaved individuals. With these groups, Sylvia facilitates a safe space where individuals can explore their feelings of loss while learning the various stages of grief and how to journey through them. Sylvia and LCS hope to equip those grieving with the tools they need for healing and understanding.

Grief is a roller coaster. There are such deep valleys and such high peaks. Over time, as you become reconciled with your new reality, the peaks and valleys begin to get less deep and not as high, and they get further and further apart. That’s what I call the path of grief.

–Sylvia Havlish, Professional Grief and Bereavement Counselor

Since the spread of this pandemic with regulations surrounding social distancing and public gatherings, Sylvia has had to put her grief groups on hold. While she’s unable to meet with the people she counsels in-person, her continued commitment to helping those who are grieving remains strong, and she understands that their need for support is greater now more than ever. 

Different Dimensions of Grief: Sylvia’s Advice on What You Can Expect

In her groups, Sylvia teaches individuals about the various dimensions and stages of grief. “There is no timeline to grief and no two grief journeys are the same,” she notes. While everyone’s journey through grief is different, here are some feelings you may experience that Sylvia attempts to help people understand.

  • Shock, Denial, Numbness, Disbelief

A “temporary time-out”…mind-blocking: not connected to listening, an anesthetic feeling, hysterical crying, outbursts of anger, laughing, or even fainting

  • Disorganization, Confusion, Searching, Yearning

Often the most isolating and frightening part of any grief journey. Referred to as “the going crazy syndrome.” Defined by restlessness, agitation, impatience, disconnected thoughts racing through your mind, inability to complete tasks, forgetfulness, fatigue.

  • Anxiety, Panic, Fear

Your feeling of security is threatened: anxiety results. Inability to concentrate, emotional, spiritual and physical fatigue, feeling easily overwhelmed, energy drained.

  • Physiological Changes

The most common physical responses are trouble with sleep, low energy, muscle aches and pain, sensitivity to noise, feelings of emptiness in the stomach, changes in appetite, weight loss or gain. Good self-care is important at this time.

  • Explosive Emotions

Volatile yet natural emotions in this part of the grief journey are: anger, hate, blame, terror, resentment, rage, jealousy, a desire to protest. Explosive emotions should be expressed not repressed.

  • Guilt and Regret

This includes survival guilt, which is feeling guilty that your loved one is dead and you survived; relief-guilt syndrome, which entails feeling guilt for being relieved when a loved one dies; joy-guilt syndrome, which describes feeling guilty for experiencing any kind of joy in life after the death of a loved one; and magical thinking, which is the guilt harbored when you think your thoughts could cause the death of someone.

  • Emptiness, Sadness, Depression
  • Release

Connecting at a Distance: The Importance of Keeping in Touch with Your Support System

“When you lose someone you love, so much of that grieving is working towards becoming reconciled with your new reality,” says Sylvia. As Sylvia helps bereaved individuals through a journey of reconciliation, she acknowledges the unique kind of grief people are experiencing amidst this pandemic.

“This is a special type of grief because it is a double trauma,” she says. “We’re grieving the loss of who we were before this pandemic, like the ability we had to go out and see friends and physically be with them. And thanks to technology we can obviously talk on the phone and over the computer, but there’s no human touch. There’s no hugs or someone to put their arm around you. That for me is the biggest loss, especially for people who just lost a loved one. This is all piling up to what we call very complicated grief.”

Know You’re Not Alone…The Fear of Losing a Loved One While in Quarantine

Sylvia is doubly aware of the tough times individuals are facing, first, because of her experience as a grief counselor, and second, because of the challenges she’s facing in her personal life. Sylvia’s husband has a form of dementia and is with her at home on hospice. “We are here together,” she says, “but I know that in my heart and soul, if he should pass away during this quarantine, no one will be able to come here. Not my son, not my brother, no one. When you lose someone you love, one of the most important things is when other people can come around you, and love you, and hug you and stand with you, and that can’t happen while in this quarantine, not for anyone including myself. So many people are trying to deal with this challenge.”

Sylvia also describes the challenges of those who have already experienced loss in quarantine and have had to postpone funerals and rituals because of it. “I tell people that it is okay to postpone these events, as difficult as that may feel right now. And that when this is over and you can have that funeral, it will feel special and you will feel good that you did it even if it was at a later date,” she explains.

Finding Someone to Talk to…

As difficult as it is for bereaved people in quarantine to not have the comfort of a hug or human touch, as well as the absence of closure with no funeral or death ritual, Sylvia says that simply having someone to talk to, is incredibly important.

“People grieving really just need someone who will listen. That’s the best thing you can do for someone. That’s what I do. I listen,” says Sylvia. Listening to people who have experienced various kinds of loss, whether it be a spouse, friend, parent, child, or even pet, Sylvia knows that now especially, individuals who are grieving need a strong support system around them.

Through this pandemic, I think the best thing for people grieving is to be in touch with their loved ones and friends and to tell them when they’re having a tough time, and to ask them for support. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having someone who checks in with you.

Whether it is through FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, or a regular phone call, Sylvia says that staying connected with your support system, even virtually, is essential. While she acknowledges that reaching out to your support system is often challenging, usually friends and family are more than willing to help. “Asking for help can be hard, but it’s so important to tell people what you need from them.”

Sylvia says that for those who are grieving through COVID-19, finding some kind of routine is also important. “It won’t be what you had before, but instead of laying in bed all day and not getting dressed, which leads to depression, get up and take a shower and go about your day.”

It is so important to be in the land of the living even when you don’t feel like it.

Additionally, Sylvia advises that a good book or article from the internet can often help. She recommends “Don’t Take My Grief Away” by Doug Manning. “It’s an older book, but it is wonderful. It is almost like a book of instructions but it is gently and lovingly written and very easy to read. It describes essential things like self-care and what to expect after you lose someone you love.”

Although Sylvia is currently coping with her own fears and concerns through this pandemic, her hope for the future remains positive as she stays connected with family and friends at a distance, including her six-year-old granddaughter, Hazel.

“I sent my granddaughter books in the mail, and I got to Zoom with her and my son and daughter-in-law, and she was so excited to show me those books. And just seeing her, and smiling with her, and giggling with her, that lifted my spirits like no one can believe,” Sylvia reflects.

Sylvia explains that she is a very positive person, and her positivity amidst this pandemic continues. “If people know that someone is available to listen to them that can be enough. It’s good to think about how there will be a time when this is over and we can see each other again, whenever that may be. All it takes is hope for tomorrow and we need to keep that hope alive.”

If you or someone you know is grieving amidst COVID-19, click here for more information on Sylvia’s “Journeys Through Grief” group and find support for healing.