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'Cruel times': How coronavirus has changed the way we live, die and grieve

Last Updated Apr 9, 2020 at 1:12 pm EDT

A person wearing a mask stands at a window of a staff accommodation block where British nationals recently flown back from China and at risk from the new virus are being quarantined, at Arrowe Park Hospital, on the Wirral, in Liverpool, England, Wednesday Feb. 5, 2020. Britain on Tuesday urged all of its citizens in China to leave the country because of the outbreak of a respiratory illness from a new virus, while Belgium became the latest nation to announce a confirmed case. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

It’s a single, random tweet, plucked from thousands just like it from around the world.

The names are different, but they all share similar heart-wrenching stories — beloved friends and family members dying in isolation, no final words of comfort, no last worldly hugs and kisses. In many cases, no funerals or memorials. In most cases, fear, frustration, and guilt.

Cruel times, indeed.

The novel coronavirus has not only changed the way we live, it’s changed the way we die and the way we mourn, depriving us of the rituals and social connections people from all cultures take solace in.

University of Toronto psychology professor, Dr. Stephen Fleming, has studied grief for decades. He’s lectured about it around the world, written books on the topic, and as a practicing psychotherapist he’s helped many people come to terms with devastating losses.

Despite his prodigious knowledge on the topic, he shares a very common fear.

“One of my big fears, personally, is dying alone,” he said. “I do not want to die surrounded by people in nice pastel outfits that I don’t know. And I sure as hell don’t want to die surrounded by people in nice pastel outfits masked.”

But according to climbing death tolls and even more frightening projections, that’s exactly how many people have and will continue to die, with their closest friends and family helplessly stuck on the sidelines.

It’s that sudden lack of control that can magnify our collective anxiety.

“COVID-19 will deprive us of our rituals, which are important,” Dr. Fleming stressed. “It will deprive us of our social supports and threaten our resilience in terms of dealing with loss. It will also threaten and eliminate religious and cultural practices that sustain us in a time of loss.

“And then with so many losses, how can we focus on the loss of a loved one? We are facing not only the loss of a person you loved — this is shattering our sense of self. All the things we thought we understood about the world, all those assumptions are now threatened.”

While many who contract COVID-19 will experience minor and relatively manageable symptoms, those hardest hit by the illness can rapidly deteriorate, with the most serious requiring intubation.

Many will not emerge.

In some cases, there will be no chance to have a final conversation, which Dr. Fleming says can lead to considerable regret.

“When it strikes our first concern is not ‘I’m going to say goodbye to them,’ it’s ‘get them to the hospital’ and so on. So that issue is mostly survival, not death. And unfortunately, when they are rushed into an ICU we can’t visit and we can’t communicate, and I think we are also deprived of touch at that time as well.

“So it really interferes in terms of your memories of the last thing that you said to someone you love who has died.”

“You are responding to the emergency at hand and you are not thinking death, and by the time you think about death and access, you are deprived of it, so again more loss of control and that does haunt.”

Fleming offers some simple advice — don’t take your loved ones for granted.

“Given the work that I do I’m really conscious of goodbyes,” he said. “When I say goodbye to my kids or my spouse or someone I love, I always say ‘I love you’  because I know — I work with parents whose kids have died. I know you can walk out the door in the morning and not come back ever again. So, the goodbyes are crucial. But they’re not only crucial in times of COVID-19, they are crucial in normal times.”

“COVID-19 is showing us we don’t have any control and what is here today can be gone tomorrow and there are important and positive lessons in that.”

Another painful aspect of the coronavirus pandemic is the inability to offer a proper send off to someone who has died of COVID-19, or unrelated illnesses.

With new restrictions in place, and many hesitant to even leave the house, funerals and memorials are being cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

That’s not necessarily a negative, Dr. Fleming says, as long as people find a meaningful way to honour a loved one’s passing when the time is right.

“It may not be a bad thing,” he said. “Some people move towards embracing their grief right away, other people it’s almost like there’s an intuitive way of being aware that you can’t do this now, that you’ll become dysfunctional. Like ‘no, I’ve gotta worry about my kids, I’ve gotta worry about my finances. I can’t go there now.’ ”

“Delaying it until after the pandemic is over allows you to, on many different levels, perhaps have the ritual have more positive impact. But the important thing about the ritual is it has to be personally meaningful. Whatever it is that you do it should be personally meaningful.”

While waiting to give a loved one a proper funeral or celebration-of-life service, Dr. Fleming advises grieving people to maintain connections in any way possible.

“The greatest buffer to a well-adapted stress reaction is social support,” he stressed. “In the time of COVID-19 where there may be real issues in maintaining social contact, that’s where the internet and texting comes in and email and video platforms and so on.”

“I don’t look at this as just being a COVID-19 thing,” he concludes. “I look at it as COVID-19 triggering a whole lot of issues in our lives, not only in how we live, but of course, how we die. And it’s losses on a number of different levels; our loss of safety, our loss of personal freedom and jobs, our sense of control and predictability … so the survival need will interrupt grieving.”