What words describe 2020 for you? Closed. Cancelled. Isolated. “You’re muted.”

If you haven't had a loved one get sick or die during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may not recognize our society is grieving enormous losses: loss of loved ones, loss of livelihoods, loss of lifestyles.

What does pandemic grief look like? I have first-hand experience with major life changes because of the pandemic.

In January of 2021, my parents got sick with COVID. Mom and Dad are both 91. They used to split their time between Florida for the winter and New Mexico, where I live, for the summer. In March of 2020, they were detained in Florida by the national shutdown.

My two younger brothers live in Florida. One lived with my parents in their South Florida home and had essentially become their caregiver. He was taking them to doctors’ appointments, preparing meals, helping with activities of daily living, and making increasingly frequent trips to the hospital with them. He was also reaching the end of his rope with these responsibilities.

The other brother lives near Orlando. He has a housemate, who unknown to anyone, was asymptomatic COVID positive. That brother came to visit, and shortly after, the whole family in Florida was infected. 

My brothers got through COVID at home. My parents needed to be hospitalized, and then continued recovery together in a skilled nursing facility. It was during that time my Dad called and left a voice message. “We’re ready to go to assisted living,” he said. I saved that voice message as proof.

They were not going to return to their house in Albuquerque where they had lived since 2007. It contained their lifetime of possessions: furniture, clothing, artwork, housewares, photos, files. 

My older brother and I had to prepare for an estate sale and the sale of the home. While going through papers and photos, over a lunch break, we marveled at how blessed our lives have been. Our loving and supportive parents produced four very different children, each making their own unique way in the world. 

We thought it was better to be doing this downsizing while they were still alive. But I didn’t recognize the impact of my parents’ grief at letting go of their household goods, loaded with history and emotional connections.

I arranged for boxes of selected items and furniture to be moved to Florida. No one in Florida wanted my parents’ bedroom set, a wedding gift from Dad’s parents. It sold in the estate sale for a bargain. Now I regret letting that furniture go, because my parents were dismayed over the loss. Their grief became my grief.

Recognize that because of the pandemic, we are all grieving different losses in different ways. What helps us cope? Three tips: Be patient. Be present. Be prepared.

Be Patient

Grief makes people cranky, fussy, and grumpy. Grief creates physical reactions: indigestion, back pain, headaches, lack of sleep and other consequences. You can address your own and others’ grief by being patient, listening and learning.

Listen to what a mourner has to say. You might say, “I can’t imagine the pain you’re going through.” They will talk if you let them. Provide supportive silence with encouraging prompts. Offer a hug. 

Avoid platitudes. Please don’t say, “He/she is in a better place.” For the mourner, the best place for the dead to be is alive and with them. Consider offering a favorite memory you have of the deceased.

Learn how cultures mourn differently from your own experience. Wailing and keening may not be comfortable for you, but it’s practiced in many cultures around the world. And know that effective mourning takes time. In a study of how well different religious traditions help cope with grief, the rituals of Orthodox Jews were identified as coping the best. Their mourning rituals start before the funeral and continue daily for months. Knowledge can provide perspective as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Be Present

We can make ourselves stressed by projecting into the future and remembering the past while mourning what we no longer have. Being present here and now, recognizing what is helps us to be calmer and more centered. Breathing and bathing can help us be present.

Take three breaths. Breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth. Let the air travel all the way down into your belly. Go ahead, I’ll wait. The benefits of meditation start with focusing on the breath. To be fully present, take a moment to focus on your breathing.

Take a bath. Hot water can work miracles to help us relax and be present. Any kind of water source counts – a hot tub, a shower, a bathtub – it’s all good. Bonus points if you can relax in nature and listen to the sounds of crickets, cicadas, birds, and the wind in the trees. Hot water can help you sleep better.

I’ve also found literally visualizing letting go can help. I visualized pushing that bedroom set, the source of so much regret, out the open door of a cargo plane in flight. Talk about lightening your load!

Be Prepared

Despite great advances in medical care, humans still have a 100% mortality rate. Yet less than 30% of adults do any end-of-life preparation: wills or trusts, advance medical directives, and pre-need funeral planning. That leaves 70% or more of our loved ones scrambling to pull together information and make expensive decisions under duress of grief. That’s not the time to be making those kinds of decisions.

Shop BEFORE you drop. Be prepared by going to several local funeral homes long before a crisis hits with a sick or dying loved one. Costs, personalities, facilities, and services can vary widely. Know what you or your loved one might want so you can be an informed consumer.

Pull information together. Key things to know about anyone you might plan a funeral for are: Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, date and place of birth, veteran’s DD214 information (as appropriate), and online passwords. If you die and take your passwords with you, your loved ones will be in a world of hurt trying to shut down your online life.

Just as talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about funerals won’t make you dead. I’ve been talking about end-of-life issues for more than 11 years now. My husband and I have our funeral arrangements on file with a local funeral home, we’ve written our wills and advance medical directives, and we have a trust. All this planning hasn’t killed us yet.

One way you can learn about being prepared and talk about planning ahead for end-of-life issues is to participate in the Before I Die New Mexico Festival, taking place online and in Albuquerque October 30 to November 2, 2021. The Festival has entertaining and educational elements including speakers and expert panel discussions, Death Cafe conversations, and more. Learn more and register at www.BeforeIDieNM.com.

Be Patient. Be Present. Be Prepared.

We grieve many losses during our lifetimes. We mourn the loss of people, pets, and things that we love. The pandemic has condensed and multiplied our losses within a concentrated span of time. You don’t have to carry that grief alone.

Don’t be afraid to talk about mortality and end-of-life issues. Don’t be afraid to talk about your grief. Don’t be afraid to talk – period. Are you muted? Unmute yourself. 

About Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®
Gail Rubin, Certified Thanatologist and the Doyenne of Death®, is a pioneering death educator who uses humor, television and film clips, and outside-the-box activities to teach about death and encourage end-of-life planning. An award-winning speaker and author, her books include A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and Kicking the Bucket List: 100 Downsizing and Organizing Things to Do Before You Die. She “knocked ‘em dead” with her TEDxABQ talk, A Good Goodbye. She coordinates the Before I Die New Mexico Festival. Download a free planning form and Executor’s Checklist her website, www.AGoodGoodbye.com.