Grief and Mourning through Change and Isolation

Kelli Schweitzer, MSN, RN, NPD-BC

As nurses we are often there to hold a hand and be the support one needs while dealing with loss. In school we learn the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and then assess and intervene with our patients and families who are grieving based on the model. Colleagues and friends often come to us for support as they experience loss because they know nurses are empathetic and kind.

Today many are grieving based on the changes that have occurred in our society, and nurses are grieving as well. We too have lost loved ones, lost jobs, and experienced significant life disruptions like cancelled weddings and socially-distanced holidays. In addition to the loss, there has been a disruption in grief. How does one grieve these things when the traditional supports are no longer available? It is important to take the time to grieve and look to new ways to help one another. Many nurses have shared that this has been one of the most difficult aspects of our current crisis. It is hard to know how to grieve and support those who are grieving because so much has changed in our society.

Thoughts from a Grief Expert
I believe the following thoughts by John Montgomery are very helpful. John is a retired federal judge who has been involved in grief support since 2007. He has done training at the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Ft. Collins, CO. He coordinates the grief ministry at Dwell Community Church, facilitating grief workshops and hosting a college age support group in his home.

John writes:
The state of emergency in this country not only causes grief but enhances grief that is already present. Grief and suffering by nature are isolating. In his book, Forever, Paul Tripp observes that: Suffering tends to do two powerful things to us. First, it alienates us from the people nearest to us. It puts a big gulf between us. It makes us feel that there is no way anyone else could ever understand what we are going through. And if they could, they would be just as overwhelmed as we are and be looking for the quickest means of escape. We feel as if we have been swallowed up by suffering, and even though we are in the same room with others, it feels like we are more distant from one another than we have ever been.

One way we connect and process through grief is by mourning. This involves interaction with others.

While we often use the words “grief” and “mourning” interchangeably, there is a subtle but important difference. “Grief” refers to our internal struggles and feelings; “mourning” is the outward expression of the grief. Without external mourning, grief lingers inside us and lessens the probability that we will be comforted. During a time of grief, it is important to seek out people who acknowledge our loss and who will listen to our raw expression of grief. Sharing pain with others won’t make it disappear, but it will, over time, make it more bearable, more understandable, and less isolating.

When attempting to help someone in grief we should view our role as that of a companion— someone who walks along side. A central role of the companion to a mourner is active listening. If you desire to support a friend in grief, you must create a “safe place” for people to embrace their feelings of profound loss. Because of the COVID-19 guidelines relating to gatherings and social distancing, a roadblock has been put up on the mourner’s grief journey. How can we be “active” while still being isolated? Overcoming this roadblock is not impossible, but does require more effort and creativity.

Here are a few things I thought of to stay connected with mourning friends and give support. I am sure you may think of more.

1. Call person by phone and check in to give them an opportunity to talk if they desire.
2. FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom to see your family member or friend and have a conversation with eye contact.
3. Text or email to show you are thinking of them. Perhaps share something funny that happened to you recently.
4. Write a sympathy card, condolence message or note. If you knew their loved one, include a story or memory.
5. Send an appropriate condolence gift, flowers, or meal via UberEats, DoorDash, etc., or just deposit some money in the person’s Venmo or CashApp account with a message to order something for themselves.
6. Help out with practical needs that can be accomplished with appropriate social distancing such as grocery shopping or yard work.
7. Give them a distraction. Watch a movie together through Netflix party. Read a book together and then talk after each chapter. Play a game together over the internet.

So please take some time to check in on your friends and family who have lost a loved one. Even if they say they are “fine” they probably aren’t and will appreciate a chance to talk.

John writes of interventions that we can do for others. I want to encourage you as well to examine how you are doing. Are you effectively mourning the loss you have experienced lately? Do you need to reach out to a friend and let them know how you are feeling? Just as we can use these suggestions to help someone else, we may need to seek these interactions for ourselves. As nurses we need to care for ourselves in order to best care for others. I know this is difficult and often the last thing we consider but it is important.

Below are a couple articles John suggests that may also help widen your perspective of grief.

*Content republished and adapted with permission from John Montgomery