Being Away From Ailing Loved Ones

Jane Whitlock, end-of-life doula

Shortly after my father passed away on the afternoon of March 4, my brother, son, mother, and I grieved with his body at the Vet’s Home, packed up his room, and witnessed his sendoff with the U.S. flag and “Taps” in honor of his Army service. My daughter Sophia flew in from California the next day. With my brother’s family, we gathered for an informal goodbye at the Cremation Society. We assumed we would have a Celebration of Life in May after my daughter’s college semester ended. 

By the time Sophia returned to her college campus, schools were closing down in favor of distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis. On March 13, nursing homes such as my father’s were locked down from visitors to avoid affecting the vulnerable populations within. 

I am extremely grateful that we had been free to visit dad in the days before he passed at age 89. 

One of the things that troubles me most about our shelter-in-place order is that families who have an elderly or sick loved one are restricted from visits. I asked Jane Whitlock, an end-of-life doula who has led workshops for Minnesota Women’s Press, to offer suggestions on how families can grieve physical separation from loved ones. 

“One of the issues of the moment is how to grieve the loss of the person, and the anguish over not being there when they need you,” she told me. “I always say grief is a feeling, and feelings sometimes need rituals to be brought to the surface, especially when it is complicated. We can still be with our loved ones before, during, and after their passing, even if we are not in their physical presence.” 

Her suggestion: “Make a memorial spot in your home to hold the space for your feelings of love and loss. Make it beautiful and reflective of that person. Light a candle, have a photo, flowers, objects that were important to them. Take time each day to visit them. You could sit and send them love, write them a letter, talk to them, sing them a song. Get creative. That is what is great about ritual — you can customize it in any way you want.” 

Grief is not only about physical death. Whitlock believes anxiety, hoarding, and “pathological productivity” are all manifestations of unexpressed grief. “We are all grieving at the same time.” 

She reminds us to practice self-compassion. As she wrote in a recent blog post at doulajane.org, “I have always been deeply comforted when someone tells me to ‘take my time.’ They recognize I feel pressured to do something at a pace that is not my own. I appreciate the reminder to pay attention to what I need.” 

One of the things Whitlock recognized was that she needed to attend to the panic, and denial (“a cloak that we use to wrap around us for protection until we are ready”), that she was feeling about the impact of this pandemic. After she woke up anxious at 4am, she wrote a living will, letters to her sons, and instructions about her will, trust, insurance, and passwords. She talks about these things regularly, but says C19 motivated her to finally put it all down on paper.

Whitlock also allowed herself to grieve something other than the life of a loved one.

When Whitlock learned that musician John Prine was sick [he died on April 7, 2020], she placed candles around her darkened room and played his songs while lying on her bed. “It was a portal for all the grief inside me. It felt good to cry. I was ready to feel the pain of all the medical professionals who don’t have adequate protection. The suffering of people who are dying alone. The anguish that loved ones endure, isolated with all their love. The fear I had for my family and friends.” 

She focused on photos of loved ones. “Feeling my grief allowed me to be grateful for the whole arc of my life thus far. I am here wholly in my body. Feeling my heart softly pound in my chest on a bed surrounded by flickering light. I know that I am not in control, never have been, and never will. And that is okay. I am here now.”

Whether it is the physical distance from a loved one who is suffering, or the upending of daily life, Whitlock encourages us to see this time in a reflective light.

“Grief is like a tiny woodland creature that we must lure out into the open with a trail of bread crumbs made of silence and vulnerability. For me, it is like preparing a beauty bath and slowly inching in. My message is: take your time. Grief is slow and lives inside you. And it is here to change you.”


FAQ: Loving, Living, and Dying During COVID-19

Q: I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed. What can I do?
Put your hand over your heart; count to five and inhale and exhale. Take time to quiet yourself and think of five ways that you are safe right now. It’s important to reach out when you feel overwhelmed.

  • Therapists and spiritual directors are available through the Minnesota Death Collaborativ (MDNC)
  • End-of-Life Doula Hotline, 888-351-8999
  • Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990
  • Text “TalkWithUs” to 66746

Q: I’m worried about myself or a family member becoming ill. How can I reduce this anxiety? Having conversations with your family can reduce anxiety about the unknown. Writing down your wishes and identifying what matters most is a practical way to get some relief.

Q: I know someone who is dying but I can’t be physically present with them. What can I do? You can still connect. Listening is the most important gift. Create a special place in your home with a photo, candle, and memorabilia to bring a sense of connection.

  • Find a local doula through MNDC
  • NEDA has a national directory of end-of-life doulas.

Q: I’ve never been around a dead person. What if they are at home longer than I anticipated? Death is not an emergency; it’s perfectly OK if a dead person is not taken away immediately. Slow down and be present with them. With guidance, you can also care for your person’s body.

  • MNDC, Minnesota Threshold Network (MTN), and other guides are available to walk you through this step-by-step.
  • If they weren’t receiving hospice care, contact your non-emergency police department number.

Q: I have experience caring for the dead. Can I still care for the dead during this outbreak? Yes, you can still care for the dead, but it’s important to take some precautions. Wear a face mask and gloves, disinfect the person’s nose and mouth, and make sure to use a plastic barrier.

Q: I’ve been told I can’t have a funeral or memorial service right now. What can I do? Saying goodbye and honoring your loved one is an essential part of grieving. Consider an online service to bring your community together. Alternatively, set aside time each day to reflect, create, or light a candle with your family or community. You can hold a service at a later date, and planning for it can be healing for you and your family.

Q: I am overwhelmed by grief. Who can help? Grief is natural and healthy. There is nothing to fix; all you can do is hold your broken heart and express your feelings. Mourn out loud. Find somewhere, something, someone to receive the story of your love. Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself permission to do less and slow down.

Q: I want to honor my loved one but I feel isolated from my community. What can I do? Creating a ritual is grief in action. You can send cards, light candles, say a prayer, send a handprint, paint a rock, share memories online or on the phone–any action you feel led to take.

Q: I want to get involved and learn more about these topics. What are some local resources?

MN Death Collaborative , MN Threshold Network , MN Death Cafe , DevaNation , Brighter Days Grief Center, and Inspired Journeys all contributed to this document and are valuable resources in our community.


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