Funerals are for the living. They’re an occasion for a community to recognize a loss and gather support for those who remain. But the novel coronavirus pandemic has disrupted these much-needed mourning rituals. To slow the spread of COVID-19, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourages events of more than 10 people — a guideline that extends from the Irish wake to the Jewish shiva. It’s also created thousands of new mourners, many of whom are grieving alone.
In times of crisis, “it’s even more important to connect,” says Justin Thongsavanh, operations and partnerships manager for The Dinner Party, which has sorted 8,000 grieving 20- and 30-somethings into peer-led support groups around the world. To show people they’re not alone, The Dinner Party has gone digital for the duration of the pandemic. Staff are leading virtual workshops, and some hosts are holding their regular meetings over video. “They’re having a bottle of wine to themselves instead of sharing it around a table,” Thongsavanh says.
But while some startups hope the funeral live stream is here to stay, end-of-life doulas, bereavement group leaders, and grief counselors say these social networking platforms and Zoom meetings are a short-term solution for ongoing grief. Eventually, every mourner needs the human touch.
“Grief is isolating and lonely to begin with,” Claire Bidwell Smith, a grief coach and the author of Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, says. “To have to be quarantined is making it a lot harder.”
Bidwell Smith has offered digital services for years, including an online course and phone or video consultations. She says death reminds people that their sense of control over the world “is an illusion” — a realization she calls “dizzying.” The pandemic has only exacerbated this sensation. “I’m seeing a lot of people with old grief coming back,” she says. “Those old feelings of anxiety and uncertainty are flaring up again.”
People are also experiencing fresh grief. Whether their losses are directly related to COVID-19, which has killed tens of thousands of people worldwide, or simply occurring against the backdrop of the pandemic, they may not know where to turn. Without support, they may suffer more than they would under normal circumstances. “Grief is not a mental health issue,” says Sarah Shaoul, host of the Grief Gratitude & Greatness podcast, “but if it’s not addressed, it can become one.”
There is little research on the experience of grief in isolation. But one concern is that people mourning alone will be more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and complicated grief, which is when people struggle to integrate their loss into their identity. The condition, which affects about 7 percent of mourners, can manifest in troubling thoughts and behaviors, like the belief that their loved one may come back or that their life is now meaningless. Complicated grief can and does occur even with a robust support network. But without the recognition and reinforcement of others, people may struggle even more to adapt to their new normal. The consequences of seclusion can have other side effects, too. In one study of 200 older adults who experienced the loss of a partner, social isolation was associated with longer-lasting grief and worse mental and physical health.
Online support may offer some people a path forward, provided the person grieving has basic tools, like Wi-Fi, a computer, and a video camera. But not all sites are created equal, says Anna Baglione, a PhD student at the University of Virginia researching digital tools for mental health.
In 2018, Baglione published a study on modern bereavement in the context of human-computer interaction. In interviews with 11 support group attendees and facilitators, she found that some people are able to make meaningful friendships in a setting like a Facebook group. These connections were especially important for people in rural communities who may have trouble finding in-person support. But “the biggest turnoff” Baglione found was information overload. People would join an online group and find the resources they needed, only to be overwhelmed by the needs of others. “They were exhausted,” she says.
Some online support networks may struggle to facilitate interpersonal connections and, as a result, suffer from waning commitment. “If they start virtually, [groups] don’t typically work,” says Thongsavanh. Even when they start offline, the connections between group members take time to build. Most of the groups that have successfully transitioned to video meet-ups have been meeting in person for at least six to eight months. To Thongsavanh’s knowledge, none of the newer groups are currently meeting online.
Mourning alone is a unique challenge, but there are ways for people to address their grief in isolation, says Francesca Arnoldy, an end-of-life doula who works with terminally ill people and their families to prepare for death.
Even without pandemic-related travel restrictions, “quite a bit of the support we’re offering is remote,” says Arnoldy, the program director of the end-of-life doula training program at the University of Vermont School of Medicine. In recent weeks, she’s spoken with dozens of students, practitioners, and clients about the techniques they’re using to cope with this unique challenge.
For people who are grieving alone, a meditation or visualization practice is important for addressing the anger and anxiety that come with death, Arnoldy says. Even if you don’t have a professional guiding you, dozens of apps offer these services. People may also find meaning in journaling, altar-building, and private rituals, even when public rituals like funerals are off-limits. And though nothing can replicate an in-person interaction, having someone to check in through text messages or phone calls on a regular basis is essential to maintaining a connection with the outside world.
The internet can’t replace real life, but it offers services beyond the support group, says Tamara Kneese, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco who has studied death in a digital context. People can create easily accessible memorials to the dead, either by taking over an existing Facebook account or starting a virtual altar through a dedicated service. They can also use technology to send material support, whether it’s in the form of a care package delivery or a contribution to a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of funerals — which Kneese says is already one of the top crowdfunding categories, after medical expenses. “It’s a way for people to feel like they’re participating,” she says.
Perhaps one upside to the pandemic is that everyone is grieving simultaneously, says Bidwell Smith. Whether it’s a death, a canceled vacation, or a layoff, the whole world has lost something. Though it’s hard to endure, Bidwell Smith believes that grief will ultimately prove to be “really transformative.”