With over half a million deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. and 2.5 million worldwide, we are living in a world of grief. This tragic loss is finally being acknowledged with national memorials and moments of silence. “Remember those we lost and those we left behind,” President Biden said this past week.
Grief radiates out from its source to encompass many. Each COVID loss could affect dozens of people in a family, friend circle, workplace, and community, just as each suicide loss has been estimated to bring major life disruption to about 18 people. With 47,511 American suicides in 2019, that means some 855,000 more people dealing with grief after suicide. The data are not yet in for 2020but anecdotal evidence suggests that suicide rates may have risen due, in part, to stresses of the pandemic.
Like suicide loss, COVID loss is a type of traumatic loss that may involve PTSD-type symptoms. As with suicide, deaths from COVID often happen suddenly with no time to say good bye. Likewise, survivors may feel guilt for not having been able to prevent the death or for not realizing the gravity of the person’s condition. They may even feel shame in some communities, believing that COVID or suicide taint the family name (for example, among women in Japan). Those with COVID loss may have the additional burden of having been separated from their hospitalized loved ones and prevented from gathering for in-person funerals and memorials.
With recognition that the bereaved are secondary victims of COVID, organizations are forming to bring COVID loss survivors together for mutual support. This reminds me of the growth of suicide loss survivors support groups since the 1980s. We cry and rage and cheer each other’s steps forward in small groups; we grieve and hope together at larger gatherings of the suicide loss and suicide prevention communities. We share one another’s sorrow and healing on a path most folks don’t understand.
My entire adult life, I’ve felt compelled to reach out to the grieving. Maybe it’s because I spent a lot of time mourning my parents, who died when I was 19 and 26 (my father by suicide), and knew what a scary, draining, isolating experience it can be. Or maybe it’s because I got comfortable talking honestly about death and dying in a cancer patients’ family support group at a formative age. In my twenties and thirties, my peers knew little of death, even less of suicide loss. So on the rare occasions when death touched their lives, I tried to talk with them and signal that I understood some of what they were going through and was ready to listen. I started a lifelong habit of writing notes on sympathy cards beyond the usual condolences. I envisioned myself standing at the gate of a mourning grove that others hesitated to enter and welcoming them inside. It felt like my natural habitat.
After my son’s suicide in 2013, I stood at a most fearsome gate. I now realize that I was ushered into a very special mourning grove by fellow suicide loss survivors who surrounded me with love and understanding. I met them through suicide loss support groups and suicide-related gatherings, conferences, and fundraisers—a whole community of people who, for once in my life, shared the mourning grove with me and knew the terrain. That support was life-saving for my husband and me and continues to be restorative, though I visit the grove less often today.
What other survivors did in those groups was to accompany me in my grief. They walked beside me, sometimes with wisdom and help, sometimes with silence and a hug, without pressure or judgement. I try to do the same with loss survivors who I hear about through someone’s referral or meet in person or through this blog, my book, or speaking engagements. I especially want to be there for my fellow mourning moms.
If you are a suicide loss survivor who has never had the gift of sharing time and sorrow with fellow survivors, I urge you to check out support groups and organizations in your local area, many of which now operate online (like general grief support groups). You can find listings of those groups here or here for the U.S. or here for other countries. Even if you avoided support groups in the past, consider that you may be at a different stage now, that groups morph over time as membership changes, and that an online group may actually feel more comfortable.
And if you know any COVID loss survivors, please urge them to check out groups that are forming for people like them, not only on social media platforms like Facebook (COVID-19 Loss Support for Family and Friends) but through mental health organizations, grief organizations, and hospice groups. You can find some resources here or at local organizations (for ex., in NYC and L.A. areas) here and here. I will post more as I learn about them.
For those who are mourning both suicide loss and COVID loss at this time, what a heavy burden that must be. Please be gentle and find ways to take good care of yourself every day.
One more resource I just learned about that may be helpful to anyone who is grieving: the Artists' Grief Deck. Check it out for stunning original images by international artists along with helpful messages and practices for the grieving.
No one need suffer alone in the mourning grove.