COVID-19: Sitting Vigil & Grieving Alone

These are scary times in every country, county, town, and village on earth.

A loved one develops COVID-19 symptoms, has trouble breathing and the next thing that happens is they go into a hospital, alone. We can’t visit. We trust the doctors and nurses to do what they can to heal our loved one, and many people are healing and leaving the hospitals. But some COVID-19 patients die and they may die alone.

How can you sit vigil when you can’t be there in person?

I faced this question when my brother Michael was dying. He had active pneumonia and I couldn’t be with him in person. I also could not attend his funeral. I can’t fight off respiratory infections. That means that I’m in quarantine a good part of the year to stay away from flu, and now COVID-19.

Here are a few things I did that made me feel like I was still a part of the vigil others were keeping with him and to grieve his loss.

  1.  Create one message of love and hope and ask those who are caring for your loved one to repeat this message as often as they can. I asked those who were with Michael to pass along one message from me. The message was this: “Paula says to tell you she loves you and she will see you on the other side.”
  2. Talk to your loved one by sitting vigil at home alone. I sat with a cup of tea and pictures of my brother Michael and lit a candle and just talked to him. I was alone in my dining room, with the lights dimmed. I talked to Michael about our shared memories, about my sadness that his life was so hard the past few years because of his illness. I imagined the bed he was in and the one person who was there with him. I prayed for Michael, his wife, and our family. I prayed for his release from a body that no longer worked.
  3. Write a letter to the dying person.  A letter doesn’t have to be on lovely stationery. It also never has to be delivered to the person you are writing it to. You can use white copy machine paper, notebook paper, scrap paper. You can print instead of writing in cursive. You can draw pictures throughout the letter. You don’t have to worry about spelling or grammar or punctuation. Just sit down with a pen or pencil and some paper and pour your heart out. If you are angry with the person who is dying for abusing you or abandoning you, let that anger out on paper. If your heart is breaking, put that down as well. After the person dies, burn your letter outside so that the words and pictures float up. The main point is getting your love, your anger, your fear, your sadness out of you and down on to paper. This is also helpful for kids – they can draw pictures and let their sadness out too.
  4. Prepare to say goodbye over the phone. You may have the chance to say goodbye via phone or audio/visual connection (Zoom, Skype, and Facetime). Think about what words of love or kindness you want to say to the person who is dying. It’s easy to create these messages when you love the person who is dying but that’s not always the case. For those of you experiencing the death of your abuser/abandoner, I encourage you to say positive things even if there are open wounds in your relationship. Some suggestions are thanking the person for the lessons they taught you about yourself. For example, maybe you are stronger because they were cruel, or maybe you know how to unconditionally love others because they didn’t give you the love you deserved/wanted/needed. 
  1. Grieving Alone: Take a walk or a run or sit outside alone and take that time to grieve and let go of your anxiety.  Everyone is stressed out during the pandemic. Even if we think we’re coping well, even if no one we know has COVID-19, we have a generalized fear for those we love and for our own health. If someone in our family or our circle of friends is dying or could die from this virus or from other medical problems (cancer, COPD), that hourly internal stress/anxiety level goes up exponentially. As you wait for news of your loved one or your abuser, take a walk or a run, get outside if you can for fresh air, physical activity or some kind, or just to feel the sun shining on your face or the rain falling around you. Let yourself feel whatever range of emotion you are experiencing and imagine it’s dropping off your fingers tips, all the hurt, the rage, the sadness. Let it go.

For more suggestions about how to sit vigil or grieving alone you can check out other posts such as My Brother Michael Died, Grief is Not Selfish, and When Your Abuser or Abandoner Dies.

If you have suggestions on how to sit vigil when you can’t be with your loved one or ideas on how to cope with grief, please leave a comment on this post.

I hope you are all healthy and stay safe.


1 comment

  1. Lovely suggestions! One challenge many families face, as I am hearing about the experiences of some people “one degree of separation” from me, is that unlike many “death bed” situations, which are often not unexpected, with COVID-19 a loved one can go from perfect health to the death bed literally overnight. In those situations, we are simply unprepared to react, let alone think about what to say or do. And, since we can’t be with them at the end, we feel even more powerless.

    I heard a story from a relative who works in a hospital about a call they participated in with the wife of a 42 year old man, a track coach in excellent health, who was suddenly dying of the virus; she was begging them to arrange for someone to hold his hand for her since she wasn’t able to!

    I think at this time in particular it is very important to have conversations with loved ones NOW about how you feel about them, what you will be doing to express your love and support if you can’t be with them in person, and to let them know they will always be in your mind and heart.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.