As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect people nationwide with a doubling of cases in the last 2 weeks alone, many grieving family and friends of nearly 605,000 who died so far are just getting started on the road to recovery.
For every person who dies, 9 people, or about 5.4 million nationwide, are grieving the death of someone to COVID-19, according to a recent article in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”
Of those, about 2.4 million nationwide are facing complicated grief with symptoms that do not improve over time, according to Huldah Cannon, a medical social worker at the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Hospice Department. In California, that translates to about 250,000 who are suffering symptoms of complicated grief including depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
Cannon, and her medical social worker colleague Sukhi Lensky, each with about 30 years’ experience, are now offering free, online COVID-19 grief support groups for Kaiser Permanente members and non-members alike. Since the groups are online, people seeking help to deal with the loss of a loved one can participate from anywhere.
Group therapy for 7 to 9 participants runs 90 minutes once a week in the evenings and lasts 8 weeks. Cannon and Lensky help participants build a support system, first with other group members, and later with others in their lives, said Cannon.
With the help of Intensive Care Unit social worker Sasha Reid, who started compiling a list of survivors whose family or friends died at the Oakland Medical Center beginning in March 2020, Lensky and Cannon started contacting people to offer the groups in December.
In May the Bereavement Department increased the number of groups to 2 per week and will adjust the frequency with demand.
Unprecedented mental health need
“These groups are important because as a nation we have never faced anything like this,” said Cannon. “People say things like, ‘I dropped her off at the ER and went to the grocery store thinking she would just get some oxygen and come home, but I wasn’t allowed to see her in the hospital, and then I never saw her again.’”
Ed Chan, senior vice president and area manager for Kaiser Permanente in the East Bay, said he is proud of the work Cannon and Lensky began to help survivors in a very difficult COVID-19 environment.
“Hospice virtual bereavement sessions have been extremely helpful to our members and friends in the community experiencing grief from loss during this pandemic,” said Chan. “The team’s ability to quickly shift in-person support to virtual sessions demonstrates their commitment to the community’s needs, no matter what the barriers may be.”
Honoring those who died
Cannon said the groups offer therapeutic relief by having participants talk about the person they lost, what was special about them, and what their relationships were like, good and bad.
They also teach each other strategies they learned along the way to deal with the loss. Cannon and Lensky add mindfulness and visualization exercises and suggest reading material.
“COVID-19 loss is so different and new from other types of loss because of the trauma associated with it,” Lensky said. “There’s the fact that people could not be with their loved one when they died, there’s shame that they could not protect them, and then there’s this political aspect where the loss is demeaned because people were saying COVID-19 is not real.”
Elizabeth Paul, social services manager of the Oakland Hospice Department, said, “It is becoming increasingly clear that grief is now a public health crisis, but we do have skilled clinicians who are expert at grief. And we have built a network within Kaiser Permanente that shares referrals and clinical expertise to support those in need.”
For more information or to join a group, call the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Bereavement Department at 510-752-7757.