By Adriana Rengifo
As chaplains, we know about grief and mourning all too well. Many of us serve in a clinical practice that allows us to walk alongside patients and families who have experienced very difficult situations. However, nothing has fully prepared us to deal with the immediate challenges of grief and mourning in the midst of a pandemic like COVID -19.
In the early stages of my career, I listened to stories from family members as they worked through the loss of their loved one (mourning), and I intentionally attended to their experience of grief, as well as learning about it myself. But most families that were dealing with the death of a loved one were surrounded by others who were ill-prepared to help them. As John James and Russell Friedman write, “It is only natural and quite healthy for people who are caught in a grieving situation to seek solace from those around them. However, in rather short order it becomes abundantly clear to the griever that friends and associates are not of much help. Even though they are well meaning, they often say things that can seem inappropriate.”
The death of a loved one is a profound and life-transforming event. There is no one formula on how to grieve. And how each person deals with grief is informed by other previous losses, and by the relationship with the person who died. In due course, it becomes a personal journey between how things were and how they will be.
After I had been doing clinical work for some years, I came across a book titled “Grief Works” by Julia Samuel, a psychotherapist specializing in grief, who has worked for 25-plus years with bereaved families as a pediatric and maternity counselor in Great Britain. While this was actually a self-help resource, the content of the book spoke to me, because of the stories about counselees as they worked through grief in their psychotherapy sessions. The book helped me prepare in advance for potential scenarios that I would see in clinical practice.
In the current pandemic, I wonder how I manage to continue working without sustaining professional and personal burnout. But as part of my professional training in psychotherapy, I have intentionally honored my self-care practices, keeping in mind what matters and works for me instead of suppressing my emotions, or ignoring the psychological impact of my clinical work.
I have been personally challenged by the current isolation measures that prevent social gatherings at the time of loss. People who are geographically separated from close family and friends also have to cope with this new physically distant way of mourning. Compounding this, their loved one’s body, in many cases, was not put to rest in accordance with collective customs and faith practices. Those who don’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved one may find closure even more difficult.
I think one reason why our grieving process has been impacted so strongly by the pandemic is because certain kinds of death are more difficult to grieve than others. Sudden deaths by COVID-19 also leave family members dealing with unanswered questions and painful memories of how the death took place. Unexpected deaths, such as heart and respiratory failure due to COVID-19 complications, have left too many families with not enough time to say goodbye. In the past months, I have witnessed the intense feelings of regret, guilt, and anger as family members, in their grief, look for someone to blame, sometimes including themselves.
For chaplains, grieving is not something that we do after work, but rather a therapeutic approach embedded in the way we engage and support patients, families and staff. Our ministry of presence helps those family members who trust us to accompany them in their healing process. Bringing a positive outlook on life in the face of COVID-19 is how we stay curious and open to the challenges that may lie ahead. Trusting that, in answering the vocational call of our profession, we are aware of the balance that is needed to know when to allow ourselves and others some alone time to do the grieving process and when to reach out to others.
Adriana Rengifo M.A., is a registered psychotherapist and clinical chaplain at Bruyere Continuing Care in Ottawa, Ontario. This is adapted from a presentation to an NACC webinar in November.