- Devastating and tender, grief has the power to transform us, especially now
We are all grieving for something these days. Dance parties in packed clubs. Grandkids snuggled on the laps of their bubbies. Group selfies. Unmasked small talk. Hello kisses. And everything else that reminds us of our old, normal, pre-COVID lives. We're living in a time of collective grief, feeling the impact of thousands of tiny daily losses, from the quotidian routines we took for granted to the grand life plans we may have put on hold.
What's more, many of us have lost people, either to COVID-19 or something else, at a time when losing people feels harder than ever. "Grief has layers—it's like a spiral and you start to work your way out," says Naomi McCann, a holistic aesthetician and life coach in Saugerties, whose father, Danny Franks, passed away in July. At 96, Franks had seemed eternally young, going to the gym for water aerobics every day at 9am, riding the New York City subway alone, never using a cane or walker. A retired lighting designer, he was always shining the light of his enthusiasm on something, whether it was movies, photographs, or computers. But when shelter-in-place took hold in March and he lost his routine, Franks faltered. Developing two infections after a minor medical procedure, McCann's once-unstoppable father left this world. And although he never contracted COVID-19, the spiked virus had a hand in his undoing. "He's like collateral damage of COVID," she says. "Prescribing that older people stay at home, shut in, without family and without moving their bodies—that's not a prescription of wellbeing for anyone, but particularly for someone of that age."
Losing a loved one is never easy, and in coronavirus times, the intensity is off the charts. Grief today feels universal and relatable, yet it's also turned on its head as we've had to either create new traditions or reshape old ones to fit our new reality. "Right now, we can't have the funerals, rituals, and gatherings that we are used to having," says Claudia Coenen, a grief counselor and thanatologist (expert in the study of death, dying, and bereavement) based in Hudson. "It's harder to have these celebrations, but that doesn't mean that they can't be done. They just need some guidance." During spring lockdown, Coenen joined forces with about 85 grief counselors, therapists, funeral directors, and others working in the field to put together a resource to help people develop new rituals to honor those who die in the COVID-19 era. The result was the COVID Paper, 48 downloadable pages of advice, references, and best practices to support grieving people and communities—from creative ways to memorialize a loved one, to tips for supporting friends and family from afar, and even what to say (and not say) to a grieving person. (Rule #1: Ditch the clichés.)
Zoom Funerals and Virtual Vigils"Grief lasts as long as love lasts," the COVID Paper says, and there are as many ways to grieve as there are to love. For McCann, it helped to take solace in the customs of her Jewish heritage, including the Taharah—a ritual cleansing and purification of the body that she, with her daughter, lovingly performed for her father. Yet, many of her five siblings lived several states away and couldn't be there at this difficult turning point for the family. Shiva, the seven-day Jewish mourning tradition, was quiet and intimate, devoid of the customary influx of visitors. In a way, that was a relief. "My mother felt that it was easier to just talk to people on the phone, rather than have people come to the house," says McCann. "When you've been in quarantine so long, any social interaction is jarring. I think that if it had been normal times, shiva with people would have felt more nurturing."
In another twist of tradition, her father's virtual funeral on Zoom drew 150 guests, including many who never would have been able to attend an in-person event. "People he'd worked with over the years, many of them elderly, were able to join us and share, and that was incredible. When we went into that funeral, many in my family were saying, 'We'll do something in person in a year.' But it was so satisfying that I don't think we need to do another gathering in person." It's common for grieving families these days to postpone their events, thinking that an online gathering can't compare to a physical one. Yet if it's done properly, a virtual funeral can be beautiful and powerful.
"It helps to have a framework beforehand—you need to know who is going to speak when and what you're inviting people to do," says Coenen. "The first time I attended an online ritual, a candlelight vigil for COVID, over 300 people attended and I thought, there's no way this is going to work. How can we feel like we're really connected and in a sense of ceremony when we're all sitting on our couches in different places? But it was very scripted in terms of who would speak, who would play music, who would offer spiritual words, when we would all be invited to light a candle and sit in silence, and then hold our candles up to the screen. And it was amazing. Everybody participated in a way that really felt unified."
The Personal Is SacramentalWhen it comes to grief, the power isn't just in the collective. It's a deeply individual endeavor. Thomas Shooman, MHC-LP, a psychotherapist at Resolution Psychotherapy in Poughkeepsie, recommends creating your own personal grieving rituals, especially in today's more solitary and inward-turning times. "Lacking the cultural script that exists for wakes and funerals, personal grieving rituals are necessarily unique," he says. "That said, there are some themes that people often find useful. For instance, the inclusion of some item that belonged to the lost loved one. A grieving person may wish to preserve, or even dispose of, such a keepsake in a way that feels meaningful. To the extent that's possible, it may be helpful to include others in this act—either by video, phone, or (while practicing social distancing precautions) in person. Some may wish to engage in an activity that honors the values of the deceased, such as donating to a favorite cause. Yet, a personal grieving ritual could be as simple as dedicating some time every day to simply sitting with the memory of the one who was lost."
After the rituals and gatherings are over, living with a difficult loss long-term can feel insurmountable sometimes. Shooman and his Resolution Psychotherapy colleague Megan Quinn, MHC-LP, offer a grief counseling support group that's held virtually and designed for our COVID times. Though the primary aim is to create a supportive circle, Shooman and Quinn also teach coping skills to participants and offer guidance on managing and processing grief. Alternatively, or in combination with a support group, meeting one-on-one with a counselor or therapist is a way to hold nonjudgmental, compassionate space for a grief that feels overwhelming.
Every counselor has a different approach, and for Coenen, it's a holistic method with a creative twist. "Grief affects us on every level of our being," she explains. "It affects us emotionally, it affects us physically. It affects us cognitively, because it's very hard to concentrate when you're grieving. It affects us relationally in our community, and it affects us spiritually."
Coenen herself is deeply familiar with all the levels, as she experienced them all after the devastating loss of her husband, Alby, at an early age in 2005. In Shattered by Grief: Picking up the Pieces to Become Whole Again (2018) she shares her personal story and offers expressive therapies and activities to process grief, such as storytelling, self-care, and reflection. Originally a dancer, she encourages tapping into our personal creativity to move through grief and other life transitions, and her Karuna Cards is a deck of 52 prompt cards that suggest creative ideas like collage, journaling, and connecting with nature. Her latest book, The Creative Toolkit for Working with Grief and Bereavement (2020), gives wellness professionals the tools they need to help clients understand and process their grief in a positive way. "Everybody has bad things happen to them, some worse than others, but how we find our way back to fully living, and how we grow from these events, is my focus," she says. "I try to help my clients discover how to live again, while still remaining connected to their loved one who's no longer here."
Releasing the DarknessLearning how to live and become whole again felt impossible at first for Chris Freeman, artist and owner of Private/Public Art Gallery in Hudson, who lost his partner, sculptor Lee Andy Musselman, to cancer in 2013. "It was the most balanced and loving relationship of my life," he recalls. "In the two years before he died, we had intense conversations about how much we loved each other and about the hereafter." A week before he passed, Freeman drove Musselman to Michigan where he could be with his family. The two had read a book about a woman who said she "died" momentarily and came back to life cancer-free, and they formed a plan that Musselman would try to do the same, letting the cancer die instead of him. "At the time, it seemed reasonable. It was pretty severe what we were going through, and this was something to hold onto. So, he died and I waited for him to come back. But he didn't come back." Deep in grief, Freeman returned to Hudson alone. "When I got home, I couldn't open my eyes in the house because everything was me and Lee. I would open my eyes just so I wouldn't bang into something, then I'd close them again. And I couldn't stop weeping. It got to the point where I was screaming my head off."
Freeman's best friend, Laura, who lived upstairs, tried to calm him but couldn't get through. By chance, she struck up a conversation with a woman at a local shop, mentioning that she feared for her friend's sanity after losing his partner. That woman was Coenen, who offered to come see him. At their first meeting, Freeman recalls asking her if he was ruined. "You're not ruined," she said, "and I promise, you will feel normal again. You'll learn to live with your loss, and I'll help you through it." It was because she was a fellow survivor of loss that Freeman felt safe with Coenen, who explained that there is no wrong way to grieve, and all the feelings he was going through were important and natural. She urged him to channel his grief through creative expression, hoping he would make discoveries there. He wrote voluminously, and he went from questioning whether he should keep living, to slowly participating in the world again. "I realized that I was in a powerful and holy time, and that I needed to pay attention because it was very special, quiet, and personal, and very close to what you might call God."
Freeman gave up drinking because he wanted to be fully present for his grief, and for Lee, whose presence he began to feel everywhere. "It wasn't easy, but through really being present with my grief, having someone to talk to about it, and having literature to read, I was able to find moments where I could release the darkness in myself. It completely changed me as a person and made me more compassionate. I see the world now with a completely different gaze."
Even the opaquest grief can break us open to transformation, if we let it. "Grief shatters our assumptive world," says Coenen. "How we thought our world was going to be, and how we thought we'd have control over our lives, is no longer there. And of course, from an esoteric perspective, we don't really have control. We only think we do." Yet, when the bottom falls out—whether it's COVID, a lost loved one, or another transition—with guidance and grace, we can find our footing again.
Claudia Coenen, CGC, FT, MTP Thekarunaproject.com
COVID Paper Covidpaper.org
Thomas Shooman, MCH-LP Resolutionpsychotherapy.com