Coping with grief is harder during a pandemic

Latonia Harris just lost her mom to COVID. She joins the families of more than 11,000 New Jerseyans who’ve died from this disease. As the state grapples with how to move on from this pandemic, many families don’t know how to move on from their grief.

“They’re at the very beginning phases of their mourning their grandmother. Their grief may look different in three or six months. Their grief may look different in three years. But however their grief looks, it’s fine. It’s their grief journey,” she said. “We’ve really learned to identify our feelings and to understand that grief is a complex thing and everybody grieves differently.”

This isn’t the first loss for the Harris family. In 2013 they lost their dad and husband to pancreatic cancer. That led them to an organization called Good Grief that helps kids of all ages cope with grief. Without support, CEO Joe Primo says these kids face a number of health risks.

“Obesity, and anxiety, and toxic stress and a whole bunch of other risk factors that they will carry with them throughout their life,” he said.

According to Primo, teens in particular who are grieving are especially vulnerable to risky behaviors like turning to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain.

“But what’s so important for us to always remember, that when support is provided, not just in the short-term, but for the duration of a grief, which, and grief is a lifelong experience,” he said. “When we provide that support to a child, the risk factors are mitigated and children can live healthy and meaningful lives.”

But for all that Harris and her girls have learned from Good Grief, she says the pandemic has brought new and unique challenges.

“One of the things that people who’ve experienced a COVID loss like myself know is that there’s huge isolation. If the person is hospitalized and you’re not able to visit, you don’t even get those moments where you can hold a person’s hand, tell the loved one how much you care, and be with them as they exit this living world. That can be really detrimental and that presents a unique way of grieving,” she said.

But Primo says isolation is a common emotion felt by those grieving, and he points to the community’s response to those in pain.

“So many of the risk factors happen because we ‘other’ the children, we ‘other’ the grieving person. Which is to say we make them the kid with the dead dad, rather than the kid who also needs to be invited to the birthday parties.” he said.

He says simply talking to those grieving, asking how they’re doing, even scheduling time to check in with them can make all the difference.

“When we lose those we love, one of the scariest things is that maybe our special person will be forgotten. So if we can show that we remember, that’s really powerful for somebody who is grieving. And if you don’t know the person who has died, take the time to understand. Ask about that person,” he said.

Primo says there’s a collective grief we’re all experiencing as the life we once knew has changed. Good Grief’s website has lots of helpful tools to help cope with all levels and stages of grief and to help families memorialize loved ones who they didn’t get to say goodbye to.