Navigating the Loss of a Loved One Amidst a Pandemic

By Stefanie Shimansky
15 min read

A simply put, but not simply experienced fact: There is no one “right” way to grieve.

Similarly, there is no one “right” thing to say to someone who is grieving. Everyone grieves differently. And every person grieves every loss differently.

In my 30 years of life, I’ve lost a lot. When I was 14, my perfectly healthy 18-year-old sister died within a week of getting sick from unknown causes. When I was 20, my best friend passed away in a car accident. When I was 26, my first dog that was truly all mine unexpectedly passed away at 7 years old (and yes, it is totally normal to grieve the loss of a pet… even 4 years later). And just this year, my grandpa died less than a week after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

I have grieved differently over every single one of those deaths.

When I lost my sister at the raw age of 14, I thought that was the hardest thing I’d ever have to go through; but every loss after has just gotten harder. It’s almost as if the feelings from the previous loss resurface and are thrown into a tornado of emotions with the current loss. 

But what I’ve realized is grieving during a time when there are so many unknown and unpredictable circumstances, seems impossible at times. Even though thousands of people are losing their loved ones to the very same virus, it’s easy to feel alone. 

It wasn’t until a co-worker asked me how I was doing about a month after my grandpa died that I realized, I didn’t think I had even grieved yet. Of course I cried a couple times, I had my days of ups and downs, but it was almost like I acknowledged it, and  then quickly tucked it away until I had the mental capacity to actually accept and process it. Because how selfish is it to take the time to grieve when the whole world is grieving? How can you possibly focus on yourself when so many people are being affected by the same thing every single day, and for some families, multiple people are getting sick and passing away? How do you focus on yourself when the world will not slow down? When the wheels in your head won’t stop spinning? How do you slow your breathing and calm your anxiety when the past few months, it feels like life is one big panic attack? And how do you process the death of a loved one when every time you get on social media so many others think this is all just a big joke? Yeah, the memes are funny, but the claims of this all being a big hoax, those sting, and you don’t have the energy to tell every single person, it’s real.

I can’t tell you how to grieve. I can’t give you a plan to make the pain go away. I can’t tell you that it’ll get easier with time. But I can tell you, you are stronger than you think. You are going to get through this because you carry your loved one in your heart now. Every single thing you do, is now for them too. You’re going to take this one day, one hour, one minute, and one second at a time, and you’re going to get through this stronger than you were before… not just for you, but for your loved one as well. And I can tell you what worked for me…

  1. Be passionate – find something that makes you forget everything else going on in the world. Dedicate time to yourself and make you a priority. For me, that is working out, whether it’s running, biking, lifting weights, or kickboxing to get the anger out. I was actually finishing a ride on my indoor bike, when I heard my Dad’s cell phone ring, and I knew what the ring meant. I knew my Grandpa had passed. Before I got on the bike, I knew there was a good chance my Grandpa wouldn’t make it through the day, and I knew I needed an escape. Even when I am sad and feel emotionally drained, I allow myself to get lost in the moment and enjoy the things that make me the happiest. I know my passion would make them proud. Don’t lose sight of who you are and what you love.
  2. Be giving – My favorite way to feel better about myself and the things I have gone through in my life is by giving back to others. Almost 7 years ago, I ran my first race for a charity. Since then, I have raised thousands of dollars for over 10 different charities. It sets my soul on fire to help others and know I’m making a difference. Instead of feeling sorry for the things I have lost in life, I do my best to turn my outlook into an optimistic one by helping others who are in need. There are so many ways you can give back whether it’s by donating money, blood, clothes, or items you no longer need, and even volunteering at places that are still needing help during COVID.
  3. Be forgiving – Take the break. Stop being so hard on yourself. Life is difficult for everyone right now, but especially those of us who have lost someone we love. Some days sanitizing my groceries and forgetting my mask inside after I’m already in my car, are enough to end me over the edge. Give yourself grace by stepping back and realizing when your body and mind just need time to catch up. It is okay not to be okay, especially right now. Forgive yourself for not being who you were four months ago.
  4. Be gentle – Losing a loved one any time is rough but losing a loved one during COVID is something I never could’ve imagined. Saying my goodbyes to my Grandpa, and the attending his funeral over Zoom, is not something I ever imagined doing. But since my Grandpa lived in New Jersey, and my immediate family is in Florida, we were not able to be there with him, or even fly up to his funeral because of travel restrictions in both Florida and New Jersey. Not to mention, both my parents are extremely high risk themselves. During my Grandpa’s funeral, I didn’t even cry… I didn’t shed even one tear, and I was almost mad at myself about that. But then I realized that this was all just too surreal. I had to remind myself to be easy on myself because my brain literally could not wrap around the fact that my Grandpa was gone. And seeing him in a casket over a computer screen, was not the closure I needed to move on. When will that time come? I’m not quite sure I can say, but I can assume that it will be when we finally are able to visit New Jersey and celebrate his life with my family.
  5. Be free – Free your mind. Social media is a blessing and a curse. I absolutely love staying connected with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, right now. The night my Grandpa passed away, we all got on Zoom. I have over 20 cousins on that side of my family alone. It’s a rare occasion for us all to be in the same room together, so the fact we could come together, even if it was through a video chat, to remember my Grandpa, and share our memories, was just what I needed under those circumstances. However, social media can also be a complete nightmare for me to sign into right now. I’m not an overly sensitive person, but still seeing the theories that people come up with regarding COVID is heart wrenching. So, if you need time to unplug or unfollow certain people on social media, do it. The snooze for 30 days button has become my favorite tool lately. Remember that it’s okay to focus on you right now. It does not make you a terrible person to disconnect yourself from something that does not serve you anymore.

If you have a friend who recently lost a family member during COVID, I can’t tell you what to say to someone who is grieving. Because even after the losses I’ve experienced, I still don’t even know what to say to others. The truth is nothing you can say will make a difference at that time. But I can give you guidelines on the things that helped me most…

  1. Be friendly – You are their friend for a reason. They love you; they trust you, they lean on you for support, and they don’t expect to change anything in your friendship because of what they’re going through. One of the most awkward things for me is when my friends think I don’t want to talk about the death of my sister, my best friend, or my grandpa, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I would talk about those three every second of every day. I will tell their story to anyone who will listen. Of course, this isn’t the same for every person who is grieving, so just know who your friend is, but don’t change anything in your friendship due to their loss. They need you to be exactly who you are. They will crave some sort of normalcy in their life.
  2. Be understanding – your friend is going to go through such a mix of emotions. For me personally, I was mostly angry when my Grandpa passed. He was 86. He had plenty of health conditions that he recovered from. He was diagnosed with lung cancer at the beginning of this year, and he was doing well with treatments. It was COVID that caused him to pass, and that was infuriating. But then there were also times where I was obviously very sad, or happy as I was going through pictures and remembering the amazing man he was. There were times I was crying both from being sad and laughing so hard. When someone is grieving, emotions don’t exactly make sense. So, know that when you are talking to or are with your friend, it’s going to be a roller coaster ride of emotions, and all you can do is put your hands up when they do, and grab onto the handle bar and duck along with them. The ebbs and flows make no sense to them, so they don’t expect you to make sense of it either.
  3. Be patient – There are some days they won’t want to talk about it. They might not want to talk at all. If they seem stand-offish, let them be. They will come around. They will come talk to you when they need you, and this might seem selfish, but let it be. They deserve to be selfish right now. It’s okay to ask them how they’re feeling the day after, or a week after, don’t let them feel like you have forgotten then, but also let them lead the conversation. Don’t pry for answers if they’re not ready to give them.
  4. Be quiet – Just listen. When they are ready to talk, and they just need an ear to vent to, or if they’ve been strong for so long, and are finally ready to break, just listen. Personally speaking, I’m pretty stubborn in the fact that I hold my emotions in for a long time. I hate people to see me cry, not because it shows weakness, but because I want to be the strong one. I have this unbearable need to be there for others, and it’s been that way since I lost my sister at 14-years-old. Even then, I felt I had to be the strong one for my parents and my oldest sister. But my best friends know, without fail, there will be a time, or times when I am ready to talk, and it means the world to me that they’re all just there to listen.  
  5. Be there – Know the person your friend is and be there for them. Nobody needs or even expects flowers, cards, gifts, or dinner to be made for them after losing a loved one, but they sure will make their day. It doesn’t have to be anything expensive, but the little things will go a long way here. Making their day, even with something that seems as small as a card in the mail (yes, like good old fashion snail mail), a $5 coffee gift card, or a care package of tools/resources/gifts will make a huge difference. Make them feel loved and supported because life will feel extremely unfair… do your best to reverse that feeling for them.

This world is confusing for everyone right now. There are so many unknowns. So much pain. Tension is high, and for most of us anxiety is at a peak; but when you feel like you can’t take anymore, just breathe. Meditate. Call a friend. Go for a walk. Cuddle your pet. Take a nap. Watch trash TV. Enjoy a piece of cake. Give yourself unlimited grace.

Above all, remember you are not alone. You are strong, and only getting stronger. You will get through this difficult time in your life, and you will carry your loved one along with your every step of the way. I’ll leave you with this…

“Be the things you loved most about the people who are gone.” – Unknown

Stefanie Shimansky is New Jersey-born and Florida-raised. She is a childless millennial… unless you count her two rescue dogs! She is a lover of Disney, coffee, reality TV, and the simple things in life. Stefanie is an avid distance runner, with a Peloton obsession, and believer that leggings are pants, who you can rarely find actually sitting still. She has been through a lot of ups and downs in life, but has found a passion in fundraising, volunteering and helping others as much as she can. You can follow her on Instagram at @stefshim.

Grief and depression are battles that are hard to fight alone. Please check out some of these other articles and resources:
Black Mental Health Resources & Networks
Taking Medicine Does Not Mean Something Is “Wrong” With You
It’s Not You – Tis The Season. Quick Tips for Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder
Mental Health is a Team Sport: I Have Anxiety/Depression and my Husband Doesn’t, But We Both Fight It.

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