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Curious Cbus: How Can Ohioans Find Grief Support During The Pandemic?

In late October of last year, Kathleen Hagedorn, her husband Peter and their son Wyatt all fell ill with COVID-19. While Kathleen and her son’s symptoms eventually started to subside, Peter’s did not.

“He was having trouble breathing. He had a really bad cough,” Hagedorn said. “About four weeks later, he went into the hospital, and he was in the ICU for 30 days.”

Because of coronavirus restrictions on hospital visitation, Hagedorn was not able to visit her husband at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. She describes this time as heart-wrenching and surreal.

After Peter was put on a ventilator, she couldn’t talk with him directly. Hagedorn struggled to advocate for her husband's needs over the phone with the different shifts of hospital staff. As Peter’s condition worsened, she dreaded answering her phone.

“It was like having the boogeyman on the other end... the daily updates carried more bad news," Hagedorn said. "I needed to know, but answering the phone became a real source of terror for me.”

Eventually, after a meeting to discuss Peter’s care, Kathleen and her son were allowed a brief 15 minute visit. A few days later, she got the call to come to the hospital as soon as possible.

“The next time I was permitted to be with Pete was when he lay dying,” Kathleen said. “His dying – so courageous, so alone – has profoundly changed me.”

Peter Hagedorn, who planned to retire this year after over 33 years of working at Ohio State, passed away on Dec. 20, 2020.

Losing a spouse would be life-altering under any circumstances, but grieving during a pandemic presents additional challenges. Funerals, wakes, memorials and other religious services where friends and family gather to comfort each other are limited by physical distancing protocols. Also, restrictions on hospital visitation create an unnatural separation between loved ones and those who are dying.

“It feels like he’s still in the hospital because I never got to go through that,” Kathleen said. “I didn’t see him. I didn’t get to talk to him. So there is a whole different way that you grieve.”

A few days after Peter passed, Kathleen wrote into WOSU’s Curious Cbus to ask about local resources for grief support groups. She also wanted to know if there were grief support groups specifically for those who lost loved ones to COVID-19.

Usually, members of grief support groups would meet weekly, sit together in a circle, and share stories of loss. During the pandemic, that type of meeting hasn’t been possible, even as almost 18,000 Ohioans have died and thousands more have fallen seriously ill.

Pamela Gompf, the manager of bereavement services for OhioHealth, oversees 21 counselors who would conduct hundreds of support group sessions in a typical year. After COVID hit, all OhioHealth’s support groups and in-person counseling was halted immediately.

Gompf and her team had never done virtual groups before, and scrambled to learn the technology and help their clients get access. But their virtual support groups have been surprisingly popular. Gompf says many participants find them more convenient than having to physically drive, or find transportation, to attend an in-person meeting.

“My first thought was that it’s going to limit access because people aren't going to want to get on Zoom or they don't feel comfortable with the computer or they don't have Internet,” Gompf said. “That hasn't really seemed to be a problem.”

Gompf said that they considered forming a grief group specifically for COVID-19, but a majority of people seeking support right now are being referred because of a loss due to suicide, homicide or drug overdose.

Whether a loved one is lost to COVID or some other illness, families right now share the emotional stress of not being able to visit the hospital, as well as not being able to hold a normal funeral.

“The way that we're grieving right now is very different,” said Sara Harrison-Mills, chief clinical officer for Syntero, a nonprofit community behavioral health agency.

Syntero has also seen an increase in demand for its services, which include support groups.

“Typically, we come together with our loved ones,” Harrison-Mills said. “And not being able to do that safely has definitely impacted how people are grieving, how they're mourning, and increasing a sense of isolation related to the grief process itself.”

Gompf of OhioHealth said that support groups can be a helpful outlet because grieving people often want to tell stories that make their friends and acquaintances uncomfortable. In a support group, they can share with those who are willing to listen and can relate to their intense sadness, pain, and anger.

“It could be the anger towards the hospital. Could be feeling like somebody – a doctor or somebody – didn't do what they should have done,” Gompf said. “It's just all those things that go through someone's head when they have a loss.”

Being able to tell that story helps a person process that loss, while listening to other people's stories lets them know that they're not alone, Gompf said.

Although Hagedorn was glad to learn these resources are available, she's not sure when she will feel ready to join a grief support group.

“I’m having trouble talking without crying,” she said. “I would really be a mess if I went right now, but maybe that’s what I need.”

In the weeks since her first interview with WOSU, Hagedorn said she's contacted local grief support resources and joined a Facebook group for widows and widowers of COVID-19.

Local grief support services include:

What questions do you have about COVID-19 in Ohio? Ask below and WOSU may answer as part of our series A Year Of COVID.


Copyright 2021 WOSU 89.7 NPR News

Michael De Bonis moved to Columbus in 2012 to start at WOSU public radio. He began his journalism career at WBEZ Chicago Public Radio with a production internship at the station's daily news magazine show, Eight Forty-Eight. In subsequent years, he worked as a reporter and producer on several projects including the pop music talk show Sound Opinions. In 2011, he was awarded the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award for Excellence in Radio Reporting for his work as a producer on WBEZ’s science show Clever Apes.
Michael De Bonis