A year into COVID, the Dayton region is grieving; ‘We will heal, and we can heal’

Pandemic continues as source of anxiety, depression for many as we move toward better times.

The coronavirus has taken many things from us in the past 365 days, most importantly more than 1,000 lives of loved ones, friends and colleagues here in the Dayton region.

It’s also taken livelihoods, weddings, baby showers, birthday parties, school field trips, date nights, extended family dinners, lunches with coworkers, get-togethers with neighbors — many of the big and small moments that make memories and suffuse life with joy.

The sadness for those lives lost and the yearning for those missed experiences — that’s a grief we’re collectively sharing.

“The entire population is experiencing some kind of grief,” said Melissa Jones, who runs outpatient therapy for Samaritan Behavioral Health. “We see it in young kids. We see it in teenagers. We see it in adults.”

For this story, the Dayton Daily News spoke to experts on how people can identify and address grief, and how grieving is different amid the pandemic.

We are inching closer to escaping isolation as vaccines trickle out to more and more people, and we move toward healing.

“Grief is the natural human response to loss,” said David Hargrave, bereavement counselor at Ohio’s Hospice. “Grief is widespread.”

“Mourning is externalizing, or airing out, all of those internal thoughts, feelings and emotions. Mourning is part of the resilience process, is part of the healing.”

Thousands more people also died of other causes as overall deaths increased notably from 2019 to 2020 in every local county.

“My dad died of kidney failure and due to COVID I lost time I could have spent with him in the hospital while he was still responsive,” said Jennifer Brown in response to a Dayton Daily News call for people to memorialize those lost in the past year.

Michael Kammer, a bereavement counselor at Ohio’s Hospice of Dayton, said the pandemic complicated the grieving process for everyone who lost a loved one last year.

“People are often not able to be with their loved ones when they die, or during that process,” he said. “It’s just heartbreaking seeing someone outside the windows, looking in and seeing their loved ones die.

“You can’t hold their hand. You can’t comfort them. It adds layers of grief on top of an already aggrieved situation.”

Finding ways to grieve, cope

Several people who answered the newspaper’s surveys lamented this.

“My mother didn’t die from COVID, but she was an Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home. We were unable to visit her in person for the last six months of her life,” wrote Bethany Bingham.

Added to that, the systems in place to support those grieving had to change. Group counseling moved online, memorials and funerals were downsized, canceled or postponed.

“Almost a year ago to this day was the last regular, traditional service we’ve really had,” said Hal David Roberts, a funeral director at H.H. Roberts Funeral Home.

Funerals are celebrations of the lives of the departed, Roberts said, and especially important in such a crazy time. So the funeral home was glad to use things like Facebook Live to let people attend safely online.

“I hope that people still have been able to feel as though they were able to celebrate those lives even if they weren’t able to be there in person at the ceremony,” he said.

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This Sunday marks a year, nearly to the day, that Zion Baptist Church members last saw each other in person, said Rev. Rockney Carter, the church’s senior pastor.

“We’re looking forward to when we might be able to meet again in the church as a church body,” he said.

The church is making plans to begin meeting in person again at the church building in West Dayton on Easter Sunday.

Survey respondents say they have tried to find ways to cope amid the pandemic.

Brown said she took solace in writing, and earning her bachelor’s degree in creative writing.

“Our faith, friends and people in similar situations helped my family and I to cope through the time we couldn’t see her and the grief of her passing,” Bingham said.

Mental health calls up

Calls to the Miami Valley mental health crisis hotline have increased steadily in recent years. The number of callers with suicidal thoughts peaked in the fourth quarter of 2019 — a year marked locally by tornadoes and a mass shooting — at 103.

Calls referencing self-harm stayed higher last year than the average in previous years. The average call lasted 15 to 25 minutes.

Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services launched a phone line in March 2020 for people not yet in crisis but wanting support or more information about behavioral health and recovery resources.

That number — 937-224-4646 — is still active and received 42 calls in February and 11 the first week of March.

“Right now, we are in a mental health pandemic as people have reached mental exhaustion after a long year of physical distancing and their lives changing so quickly,” said ADAMHS spokeswoman Samantha Elder.

“Without a doubt, this has been a challenging year, and unfortunately, continues to be for many people. We want to encourage those still dealing with anxiety and depression from the pandemic to reach out for help.”

Symptoms of grief

“What the pandemic environment has done, it has added other layers to the grief experience of every person that’s been touched by this pandemic,” Hargrave said.

Politics and social unrest last year added to that grief. “We have an election every four years, and people get frustrated every four years,” Hargrave said. “The level of vitriol and the intensity of (2020), to me indicates grief has had a role in so many layers of our functioning and our lives, and complicated the normal losses we experience.”

It’s possible for someone to be grieving and not realize it. There are numerous symptoms, and many are shared by other mental health concerns. But Hargrave said everyone should consider how their level of functioning has been affected by the pandemic.

“There are many that have not experienced a death loss, but their functioning emotionally, their ability to concentrate, their irritability in relationships, eating more, eating less. There are several other levels that if you look at those and ask why, it could indicate there is some grief.”

It’s subjective as well. People experiencing the same losses as you might be hit harder by it. We need to allow for that.

“One of the best things we can do as a society is honor each person’s journey, be curious about their journey, how their loss impacts them, and provide that space to mourn that loss,” Hargrave said.

Helping children

Children may have experienced unique losses. Virtual learning put them out of contact with friends. Older kids lost graduations or competitions.

“It’s an important rite of passage for kids,” said Amanda Deeter, a social-emotional specialist with the Montgomery County Education Services Center.

It’s important to talk with children about what they are feeling.

“We don’t bottle this up. We don’t sweep it under the rug. We don’t tell people to get over it,” Deeter said. “We acknowledge the way we are feeling.”

Then it’s important to focus on creating structure around them.

“What I would encourage parents and educators to do is: What are you doing to create routine and predictability in life?” she said. “Safe, predictable, moderate, controlled stress produces resiliency in human beings. And severe, prolonged and unpredictable stress breeds vulnerability.”

How to cope with grief

Control and routine are important not just for kids, experts say.

“Controlling the things we can control from a self-care perspective is a starting place,” Hargrave said. “In the throes of grief, we often overlook the things we do have control over due to the pain of things that we lost.”

Other aspects of self-care include establishing habits and routines, getting exercise and fresh air, limiting access to social media, Jones said, and reaching out for professional help if things are overwhelming.

It’s important to find ways to overcome pandemic-related barriers, Hargrave said, and maintain those connections that “recharge your battery.”

“Humans are wired for relationships,” he said. “It may be as simple as learning to do Zoom so I can connect with my family. It may be something as simple as masking up and meeting outdoors, or talking to a loved one through a window, or in a driveway, or in a parking lot across vehicles.”

And experts say it’s important to be patient with yourself and others. Grieving can be a long process, and comes in waves.

The pandemic will end, and some things will return to the way they were before. But the world is changed. And we will never get back the lives, opportunities, time or other things lost in the past year. It’s OK to mourn that as we forge ahead.

“We really will need to have compassion with ourselves and with our fellow man,” Hargrave said. “Give where we can. Support where we can. And collectively we will heal, and we can heal.”

Mental health resources

Samaritan Behavioral Health Crisis Care line (for mental health emergencies): 937-224-4646

TCN Behavioral Health Services for Greene County crisis hotline: 937-376-8701

Miami Valley Warmline (for nonemergency support or information about available resources): 937-528-7777

Ohio’s Hospice of Dayton Pathways of Hope Grief Counseling Center: 937-258-4991

Ohio’s Hospice of Miami County Pathways of Hope Center: 937-573-2103

Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental health Services: 937-443-1416, or download the GetHelpNow Montgomery County App on Google Play or the Apple Store.

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