By Sara Ali, LPC-I, MS, Madiha Tahseen, Ph.D.
As we all move through this pandemic, it is highly likely that we have lost a loved one or know someone who has lost a loved one. COVID-19 has changed the way we grieve and honor the passing of our loved ones. Here are some of the issues you may be struggling with after the loss of a loved one, and some coping strategies that may help you process.
Not Being Present at the Time of Death
Typically the final moments before death allow us to be close with our loved ones, make amends, reaffirm our love, or bless their passing through the remembrance of Allah. Not being able to engage in these acts due to current circumstances can make it even more difficult to grieve a loss. The loneliness of death can remain within us and exacerbate our loss.
Connecting to the death of the great Sahabah, Muadh (R) may give us some solace during this unique time.
Replace the du’as you may have done in person with virtual ones–connect with imams via Facetime or Zoom to engage in prayers for your loved one.
If possible, try to work with healthcare professionals to be on the phone during the last moments.
Your loved one may be alone but you don’t need to be. Recognize the need to be in the company of loved ones immediately after the passing and find a way to make it happen–either through virtual sessions or in-person gathering following social distancing regulations in your locale.
Allow yourself to grieve–much more on this below.
Washing of the Deceased and Janazah Prayers
Although it is a communal obligation to wash the body of the deceased and attend funeral prayers, participating in these rituals may look different during the COVID-19 epidemic. Refer to these guidelines about the ghusl and prayer/funeral processes during this pandemic. Janazah prayers have become limited to small groups, drive-ins, and/or with small groups present at the burial to protect the health of others. Funeral prayers are a way to find a sense of closure, communal support, and honor the life of the deceased, and begin the process of grief.
Funerals, specifically, bring us face to face with the fact of death–but they also provide us with an accepted outlet for our painful feelings. It is one of the first times while grieving where intense emotion is acceptable to others (i.e. wailing, moaning, intense crying). In the absence of this public ritual, we need to create other ways to meet this need of facing such intense emotion while following social distancing–and drop any guilt or judgment associated with expressing these feelings. Find a safe place to feel — such as in the form of virtual grieving sessions with family and loved ones.
Not being able to engage in the rituals of ghusl and janazah can also leave us feeling concerned about fulfilling the rights of our deceased. Even in the absence of these rituals, rely on Allah’s immense Mercy and know that the one who dies from a plague is considered a shaheed.
‘The one who dies in a plague … dies as a martyr in the path of God.’ (Al-Bukhari, Muslim).
Allah (swt) does not grant us hardships that we cannot bear. Similarly, Allah does not penalize us for not being able to participate in rituals that we have no control over during times of a pandemic. Try to complete your loved one’s rights upon you in other ways, such as making abundant du’a for them and engaging in good deeds on their behalf.
Finding Closure and Beginning to Grieve
When we are able to be present during the final moments of a loved one’s life, able to say our goodbyes, and/or pray janaza after their death, it allows for a sense of closure. When we can grieve together, it helps us feel closer, connected, and comforted. However, with isolation measures in place, the abruptness of death can leave us feeling hollow. How can we cope with this? Our new reality compels us to think of other ways to honor and grieve those whom we have lost. Some of those ways can include:
Acknowledge and accept the feelings. Allow yourself to grieve. Don’t push away the feelings. Being irritable, angry, on edge and anxious are all signs that you are feeling something. If you don’t cope with these negative feelings in a healthy way, you are likely to experience more physiological and physical problems.
“The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) wept for the son of one of his daughters. Sa’d ibn ‘Ubaadah said: ‘What is this, O Messenger of Allah?’ He said, ‘This is compassion which Allah puts in the hearts of His slaves. Allah shows mercy to those of His slaves who are merciful.'”
Time to pause and reevaluate. Don’t get lost in trying to get back to your normal routines without feeling your feelings. The best way to overcome your grief is to go right through it. One way to do this is to learn how to ground yourself and be more mindful. Mindful meditation is about paying attention to your breathing, your body, and your surroundings. It is a powerful way to take control of yourself and be present with what you are feeling. Pay attention to expressions of spiritual bypassing, when ideas about religion and faith are used to avoid dealing with the emotional issues related to the experience – for example, the saying, “You just need to pray more,” is an example of how religion is abused to avoid the underlying issues.
Adapt your rituals to the current times of social distancing.
Regular Zoom meetings with family and friends to console, read Quran, make du’a for your loved one and ask Allah for their forgiveness.
Donate to organizations your loved one believed in.
Make a list of friends or relatives to do regular check-ins with and share memories or stories of your loved one.
Try to alternate between “loss-related” activities (e.g., looking at photos of the deceased, crying, talking about the person) and “restorative” activities (e.g., making plans for the future, spending time on hobbies).
Start taking steps to fill the void inside of you left by your loved one. Healthy coping and striving for wellbeing in the midst of the pandemic is essential to overcoming your grief. Perhaps there is a way to use the crisis for personal growth.
Exercise. Your level of activity can have a significant impact on your mental health. Take a jog, go for a walk, do an in-home video exercise, and definitely read these 10 neurological benefits of exercise as a way to get motivated.
Grief is a very unique process for everyone, but if your sadness becomes too much to bear, know when to seek professional help.
How to Support Someone Who has Lost a Loved One Due to COVID-19
Don’t let your fear of saying or doing the wrong thing hold you back from being a support to someone who is in grief. Here are some things you can say or do to be supportive:
Say nothing but do something.
Sometimes it is not what we say that matters, but what we do. Offering support through small gestures can far outweigh what words have to offer. With social distancing in mind, here are some things you can do:
Organize a meal train.
Offer to take care of talking to friends and relatives.
Plan daily check-in calls.
“It’s okay to hurt or be in pain.”
From an early age, we are taught pain is bad, and we quickly react to negative emotions by trying to hide it, cover it up, or avoid it. Letting someone know it is okay to be struggling may help alleviate the burden to hide, cover, or avoid their pain. It validates and acknowledges their experience. Here are some dos and don’ts on how to be helpful.
“I am here for you”
Your presence would be a powerful reminder that they do not have to struggle alone. Some ways you can be there is by offering a listening ear, chai/coffee chats via the web, or trunk meetups, making sure to meet social distancing guidelines.
Make sure to avoid burdensome requests. Rather than “how can I help?,” send a message of “I’m thinking of you” and be open when they are ready to reach out to you. Additionally, sending a gift card for a meal delivery service is always a great way to show that you care and want to do more during their time of grief without burdening them with the request of what you can do.
“I remember when…”
Share happy memories of the person who passed away. It can be as simple as sending an email, or if the person is ready, sharing with them via phone or video call.
Offer mental health support if the person is ready and you feel able to.
This could entail:
Sharing a local support group by reaching out to your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Many of us are facing additional challenges during this pandemic. Losing a loved one is possibly the greatest challenge to face during social distancing regulations. We are not able to engage in the very rituals that provide us with some sense of coping with our loss. Know that Allah (swt) is with you and will help you get through this difficult time. Give yourself time to grieve, even if it means coming up with new creative ways to do as outlined in this article. InshAllah, you will come out of this loss in time and feeling more connected with your loved ones, living and deceased.