Anticipatory Grief During a Pandemic

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

It is 2020 and the world is gripped by a relentless pandemic. The news is filled with rising
numbers of confirmed cases, frightening death tolls and slowly increasing numbers of recovered
patients. People are facing orders to stay at home except for essential business to help slow the
spread of covid-19.

If your loved one is coping with a terminal illness right now, the events around the world may
feel distant and surreal as you anticipate losing them. At the same time, you may find yourself
impacted in many ways as you strive to support your loved one and prepare for their death.

The requirement to stay at home may mean that you can’t be with the person who is dying.
Borders are closed and non-essential travel has been cancelled. Long term care facilities,
retirement residences, hospitals and hospices are closed to visitors except for the immediate
family of those who are actively dying. If your loved one contracts covid-19, they can only be
attended by health care professionals wearing adequate personal protective equipment.

It can be agonizing, worrying and waiting while you are unable to be present at the bedside.
This situation is likely to increase the distress you feel, as you anticipate the death.

Firm handshakes and warm hugs are common ways we show care and support to one another
during difficult times. Physical distancing also means that at a time when you most need support
and connection to family and friends, you can’t be with them in person. Except for those who
live in your household, it’s best to stay at least 2 metres apart from others. No handshakes and
no hugs.

These measures are important to slow the spread of covid-19 to be sure, but if you’re preparing
to lose a loved one these circumstances can leave you struggling. There are a few things you
can do:

  1. Connect with family and friends virtually using any of the easy-to-use video call platforms
    such as FaceTime, Skype, What’s App or Zoom. Seeing one another, even on the small
    screen of your smartphone, can help you feel the warmth and caring they want to offer.
  2. Don’t forget the telephone. It may be that some people in your support network don’t
    have access to technology or a strong internet connection. Or maybe they’re just not
    comfortable with it. You can still hear the love and concern in a familiar voice at the other
    end of the line, even without the video images.
  3. Stay in touch with the health care professionals caring for your loved one. Ask if there is
    a good time to call, or whether email might be best. This can help you feel involved with
    your loved one’s experience.
  4. Find ways to express your full range of feelings. Consider keeping a journal as a place to
    vent emotions and write any and all thoughts that you’re wrestling with. Perhaps it’s time
    to consult a therapist. Many psychologists, psychotherapists and social workers have
    moved their practice on line are available for telephone or video sessions.
  5. Be gentle with yourself. Coping as someone you love nears the end of their live is
    difficult at the best of times. A global pandemic is far from the best of times. Offer
    yourself compassion, as you would a dear friend. Give yourself permission to feel the
    pain and distress when you feel blocked from doing the things you would do under more
    typical circumstances. Do things that soothe you and help you feel calm as you
    anticipate loss in these rapidly changing and challenging times.
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