How to Start Healing During a Season of Grief

By | April 1, 2021

How to Start Healing During a Season of Grief

There is no singular way to respond to heartache or sorrow. Find the strategy that works best for you.

Credit…Shuhua Xiong

We are all grieving right now.

Perhaps you’re one of the millions who has lost a loved one to the brutalities of Covid-19, or maybe you’re grieving another kind of loss: missed time with family and friends, a postponed wedding, a former job. Many of us have also grieved circumstances or deaths unrelated to the coronavirus — each made even more difficult in the context of a pandemic.

Every loss deserves to be acknowledged and addressed. So we gathered advice from bereavement experts and asked people who have recently experienced grief to tell us how they are finding peace.

There are a wide variety of strategies. But it’s important to acknowledge that many people “don’t have the luxury of attending fully to grief and mourning,” said Therese A. Rando, the clinical director of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss in Warwick, R.I. “That’s one of the most insidious things about the pandemic.”

If you’re running on adrenaline and still living in survival mode, start small and see if one of the methods below might be helpful to you, too.

“In initial stages of bereavement, many grievers find the most helpful resource to be other supportive people,” said Sherry Cormier, a psychologist and bereavement trauma specialist in Edgewater, Md. “This is because grief can feel like abandonment, and because it can feel isolating.”

Finding this kind of support in person can be a challenge during the pandemic, but video chats with helpful friends or family are often useful substitutes for get-togethers, she added.

Online resources like and Grief Healing Discussion Groups offer moderated group discussion forums, and the websites National Covid-19 Day and Modern Loss have additional resources for people who need support.

What people tend to find most helpful during the grieving process is “acknowledgment, and an ongoing invitation to share their experiences,” said Rebecca Soffer, the co-founder and chief executive of Modern Loss. “This has become all the more urgent as grieving people have had to endure the process in relative isolation for more than a year.”

Online religious services can also provide a sense of community.

Elizabeth Sanford, 58, who lives in Atlanta, said she started listening to the morning prayers of a monastery in Cumbria, England, a few months after her father died and the country went into lockdown. She watches nearly every morning on Facebook Live at 3 a.m., which is when she now tends to wake up.

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“It’s like getting a hug,” she said. “The bells ring. The guided imagery helps me cry. The prayers bring peace.”

Finally, keep an eye out this spring for a new online guide with nearly 80 websites pertaining to grief during the pandemic. The guide, which is being curated by Camille B. Wortman, an expert on grief and a professor emeritus of psychology at Stony Brook University in New York, will cover topics as varied as how to process feelings of guilt or lack of closure; how to explain death to a child; and how to help those who are mourning.

“It’s hard to be grieving actively when you are learning something new,” Dr. Cormier said. “It’s stimulating to our brain, and it takes our mind off of our struggle.”

Whether you start volunteering, foster a pet or take up a hobby, you are giving yourself a mental break from grieving, the experts said.

That was the case for Allyn Young, 43, who lives in Manhattan. After her father died of Covid in December, she said, she became “obsessed with horses.”

She started reading books about horses, following horse rescues on Instagram and watching a documentary series that described how horses are used for therapy.

“I had no idea!” she said. “Right now I’m trying to get in touch with the stables around N.Y.C. to take lessons and volunteer. My newfound and totally random excitement at the idea of petting a horse has been bringing me joy.”

Mark Seaman, 51, a cake decorator who lives in Chicago, said he became sad and fearful when his husband started suffering from serious health problems in December of 2019. A few months later Mr. Seaman began teaching himself to crochet by watching a how-to video on the website Craftsy, and started to feel more at ease.

“The repetitive nature of the activity distracted me so fully from the reality of the pandemic that the world was experiencing that I felt calm,” Mr. Seaman said.

Many people who are in the depths of grief find inspiration and connection while listening to podcasts, Dr. Cormier said.

In “Everything Happens,” Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, talks with people about what they’ve learned in dark times; “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” is hosted by Nora McInerny, an author who asks people to share their complicated and honest feelings about how they are actually doing; and “Unlocking Us,” with Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, aims to reveal the “messiness of what it means to be human.”

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Then there are books — far too many examples to mention here, including “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” by David Kessler (2019); and “It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand” by Megan Devine (2017).

Dr. Cormier has also written a book, “Sweet Sorrow: Finding Enduring Wholeness After Loss and Grief” (2018), based in part on her own experience with cumulative grief. In the span of six years, she lost her father, husband, mother and sister.

“I really get what people are going through. I get the heartbreak. I get the wanting to stay under the covers all day,” she said.

If you have young children or teenagers, there are a variety of books and films that can help them cope with loss, too. And check out these articles about how to talk with children about death and how to help children with pandemic grief.

Kristin Taylor, 39, of Oak Park, Ill., who lost her mother to pancreatic cancer in November, had tried it all: meditation, talking with friends who lost their parents, long walks, writing in a journal and yoga. “Nothing helped too much,” she said.

Then she started speaking with a grief counselor once a week.

“I feel I have a place to not only openly weep and mourn without burdening another person, but I also now have someone to help me sort out the trauma I experienced while caregiving and witnessing an aggressive and ruthless cancer take over my mother’s body,” Ms. Taylor said.

A November survey of more than 800 U.S. adults who lost someone to Covid-19 found that two-thirds of the respondents were suffering from debilitating levels of grief, a type of mourning that can disrupt a person’s ability to live life normally.

If you are using drugs or alcohol to cope, or if you are having trouble functioning, it’s important to speak with a professional, said Sherman A. Lee, an associate professor of psychology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., and one of the authors of the study. Dr. Lee’s website, The Pandemic Grief Project, offers a short test that people can use to assess their level of distress: A score of seven or higher suggests that additional assessment or treatment is needed.

The demands of the pandemic have made it even more difficult for some people to find a mental health provider, however, especially one who takes insurance.

Psychology Today maintains a large list of providers that you can filter by location, insurance, specialty or other criteria. But if you can’t find a provider who is accepting new patients, ask the providers you contacted or your primary care provider for referrals.

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Online therapy services may also be worth exploring if you need to speak with someone quickly.

Sayrah Garrison, 47, a licensed clinical social worker and dance teacher, is grieving the death of her mother-in-law, and missing her family’s California home now that they have moved across the country to New Jersey to be closer to her father-in-law. In March, she found a “grief dancer” workshop, rooted in the meditative 5Rhythms movement practice, to be cathartic and enlightening.

“I realized how much I actually missed our home in Oakland and how much I missed my regular students and the incredibly healing dance spaces we shared together,” she said.

Aerobic exercise may also release mood-elevating endorphins, the chemicals that can help you feel relaxed and happy after a workout.

Yoga is another option that helps strengthen your body and build flexibility, while offering an added spiritual component that can be calming in times of stress.

Tania Bunik of Minneapolis, Minn., 55, said the Down Dog yoga app, which she uses every day, helped preserve her mental health during a time of chaos by giving her the space to do something therapeutic for herself.

“It allows you to tailor your yoga session by the amount of time you have, the pace, the background music, the areas of your body you want to work on,” she said. “It gave me a sense of control because I had choices.”

Several people who are grieving told us that they have found it relaxing to take walks in nature; nurture their garden; or simply sit outside and observe.

“I was determined to make our backyard a nature sanctuary with a lot of beautiful flowers in the gardens, a bird bath and feeders,” said Carol Struve, 70, an artist and retired nurse who lives in Kingston, N.Y. Last year, Ms. Struve fractured her sternum, mourned the deaths of three older relatives and then grappled with a uterine cancer diagnosis.

“I restored the vintage, rusty patio furniture and bought a new umbrella for the table,” said Ms. Struve, who spent many afternoons making drawings of the flowers and gardens. “This helped me find my way through the cancer diagnosis and surgery, along with the support of my therapist and friends.”

If you don’t have easy access to a scenic spot, watching tranquil scenes on video can also be soothing. Dr. Wortman said that she and her husband take about 15 minutes a day to watch nature videos featuring scenic landscapes and animals.

It is easy and comforting, she added, and “it shows you that there’s still beauty in the world.”

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