Online bereavement support groups are embraced in Wilton

Sheila Russo

Sheila Russo

Contributed photo

WILTON — Perhaps one of the most difficult changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic is how families who have lost a loved one navigate the grief that accompanies such a loss.

Support groups for those coping with the loss of a loved one — parent, spouse, child, even a pet — have been a mainstay of services offered by Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County, but even these are changing in this time of limited in-person gatherings.

It turns out the support groups — being offered virtually online — are more needed and well-received than ever.

“People have become more comfortable with them,” Alice Mulligan, the agency’s marketing director, said last week. Online offerings allow people to participate from the comfort of their home which, she said, “has opened a whole new level of participation.” She added the agency may continue to offer online groups even after in-person gatherings are allowed once again.

To that end, the agency is offering a new support group, Loss of a Loved One During the time of COVID, beginning Thursday from 7 to 8:30 p.m., and continuing through Sept. 24. Those interested in participating in the free group, via Zoom, may register by calling Julia Bartholomew at 203-762-8958, ext. 241.

The group will be led by social worker Sheila Russo, who said anyone who misses joining the first session should not hesitate to join with the second.

Mourning in isolation is more likely to cause people to experience anxiety, depression and complicated grief, and perhaps this is why people are seeking out support groups more quickly than they might otherwise.

“There are more people reaching out, but a lot of people who could benefit,” Russo said. “The stories I’m hearing — ‘I had to drop my loved one off at the hospital. I wasn’t there at the end. It’s so difficult.’

“If you take the person who couldn’t be in the hospital when their loved one was dying. They can’t get their ashes. They can’t fulfill their shiva tradition. So many people are saying they can’t have a family gathering or they had a private burial. They had a military burial but were not allowed in the cemetery, they had a drive-by of the cemetery,” she recounted.

“They have cultural beliefs they can’t follow through on. The agony of no closure is still an issue,” she said.

All kinds of grief

Russo said it is not just people who are grieving the death of a family member who are affected.

“My hope is we can reach out to more people, including health care workers,” she said. Nurses have told her they can’t grieve the loss of their patients. They can’t support one another because they are not allowed to congregate at work.

She said nurses have told her “You take it home, but your family wants you to leave it at the front door.”

There have been other kinds of losses people are suffering as well, including loss of their own health, a job, losing touch with their adult children or grandchildren. Some people experience great frustration when applying for unemployment and there’s no one available to help them.

“Maybe they didn’t lose a loved one but they had a loss due to COVID,” Russo said.

Online support

Russo said she was at first skeptical of running a virtual support group. She thought, “who’s going to want to talk to strangers via Zoom?”

People have embraced it, she said. “They are supporting one another, collaborating, finding a way out of isolation. They are all telling me they are trying to put structure back into their day and their home … there are so many extra layers with quarantining and masks and isolation.”

Prior to the pandemic, people would visit the agency’s office, sit at a table, share photos of their loved ones, light a candle and share a hug at the end.

With Zoom, people are getting creative. They are finding ways to make connections. Whereas before they might linger and talk in the parking lot or move on to a diner, now Russo asks if they would like to exchange email addresses to keep in remote contact once the sessions are over.

“I’m having people say they would never come in [to the office], but they like Zoom,” Russo said.

“I have seen such camaraderie and support. If I can facilitate that, we’re doing something good,” she said.

“The goal is to give people a voice, a place to talk about uncertainty, grief and loss. We can’t make it better but we try to walk through their grief with them,” she said.

Russo expects more support groups will follow.

“The virus is not about to go away. I expect to repeat the group. My personal hope is we will extend beyond someone who has lost a loved one,” she said.