13:46 PM

Self-care advice for those grieving at home alone during quarantine


Of all the ways the COVID-19 virus pandemic has upended the conventions of normal life, perhaps the most painful of all is the hospital-mandated separation of sick patients from their family members and friends. Hospitals around the world have barred visitors in an attempt to help contain the spread. Emily Fessler, associate professor of marriage and family therapy at University of Houston-Clear Lake, describes it as a slow burn of grief and loss on a global scale.

“Any type of loss triggers grief, but what makes it tricky during this time is that we are going through this loss across the globe, and the world we once knew is not necessarily the one we are going to return to in the way we are hoping,” Fessler said. “There’s the grief and loss going on because of this in the whole world, and then there’s all the rest of the grief and loss that goes along with just being human.”

Across societies and cultures, she said, we have come up with traditions and rituals to help us manage the grief when we lose a loved one, and the honor the person who has passed. “Now, the way we do those things is totally undermined because of the quarantine and social distancing,” she said. “As a mental health professional, I know people go through a period of anticipatory grief, whether someone is dying of COVID-19 or something else. You know they’re dying,” she said. “You feel guilty because you can’t be there with them in their final moments, which means you can’t get the closure you want and need. You feel isolated, because at a time like that, you’re typically getting together with your loved ones, but now it’s not possible.”

But for families of virus patients, Fessler said, they didn’t get a chance to go through anticipatory grief. “There’s just trauma coming out of nowhere, and it exacerbates everything,” she said. “There’s no script for how to go through this. No one has been in this situation before.”

The first thing Fessler recommends, no matter how difficult it seems, is to practice self-care. “It seems like a monumental task in this situation, but take some time to focus on the basics,” she said. “Make sure you are hydrated and that you’re eating and sleeping. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get things done or maintain normalcy in the face of a crisis. There’s a big distinction between working from home, and working from home during a global pandemic. It’s not the same.”

Although the virus has decimated our normal support systems, Fessler said it’s important to reach out to family. “Use the phone or FaceTime or Zoom, but definitely reach out,” she said. “It might be great to go old school and write letters and memorialize your thoughts and feelings in a way that could become a keepsake. Writing letters is very cathartic and people don’t do it very often anymore. You can give it to people when the quarantine is over.”

Above all, Fessler said that despite the fact that most doctors’ offices and clinics are closed, there is no need to suffer alone. “There are lots of ways to find free or reduced-fee care. If you’re home and you’re suffering, there are many telehealth options are out there for professional support,” she said.

Learn more about UHCL’s Family Therapy program online.