Covid-19: UAE grief support groups offer a safe space to people who have experienced loss in the pandemic

With family and friends sometimes unable or unavailable to offer emotional comfort, such groups offer a safe space to come to terms with a pandemic-stricken world

Santos D'Souza, 62, talks about the unexpected death of his cousin at a Chocoholics grief support group meeting in Cafe Ceramique, Dubai.
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Sleep eluded Desiree Vlekken for nights on end. The Dubai resident was racked with grief and guilt at having been unable to attend the funerals of both her parents who died from pneumonia and Covid-19 in the Philippines.

Spurred by her overwhelming emotions and those of others around her, Vlekken found solace in the grief support group she started in April, called Chocoholics. Members aim to meet monthly and share personal bereavement stories over a cup of hot chocolate.

A Chocoholics support group meeting typically involves painting, letter-writing and meditation.

Online funerals a source of grief 

"I lost my dad in January 2021 and, exactly three months later, my mum passed away," she tells The National. "Due to the travel restrictions during the pandemic, I was only able to grieve for them from a distance and watch their funerals online on Zoom.

Our mourning rituals are the first part in the grieving process, as they help us to rationalise what has happened

“I was compelled to start Chocoholics because I realised there are many others like me in need of a safe environment to connect and heal,” says Vlekken, who is also the founder of 4get-me-not, a social enterprise for senior citizens in the UAE. The Chocoholics meetings are held at different venues and are free to attend.

It’s undeniable that the pandemic has changed the way we grieve. Living away from family, many are unable to attend the funerals and memorial services of their loved ones, leaving them with unprocessed grief. In such instances, grief support groups provide a non-judgmental space to process emotions, learn coping strategies and connect with others in similar situations.

Grief support groups make you feel less alone

At Chocoholics meetings, participants start with therapeutic activities such as letter writing, meditation and painting. “Each person is given time to share whatever they are comfortable with. Most often, it is a mix of tears and laughter,” says Vlekken. The group’s unlikely name, she says, was inspired by the many benefits of consuming dark chocolate, which is also a mood-enhancer.

At one such meeting in Cafe Ceramique, Dubai, Santos D'Souza, 62, breaks down as he talks about his cousin, Anthony, who died from a sudden cardiac arrest in December. “It is still so difficult to come to terms with his death. We were very close,” he says. “When I spoke about our bond in the group and how much I missed him, I felt better, comforted.”

These types of groups, experts say, provide mourners with a sense of community support and knowing they are not alone in their suffering. “Evidence suggests that group therapy brings a greater sense of solidarity,” explains Aisling Prendergast, the support group services lead at Raymee Grief Centre at The LightHouse Arabia Centre for Wellbeing.

"Grief itself is so lonely and isolating. To know that you are not alone in your loss, to understand that you are not the only person experiencing emotions that are not likely to be talked about, such as extreme anger, anxiety and hopelessness, creates connections with others."

This decade-old centre has several grief support groups, for people coping with the loss of a partner, of a parent, of children and of loved ones lost to suicide. Since the pandemic, Prendergast says, there has been a steady increase in the number of people contacting the centre for support. The meetings are currently held virtually several times a month and include eight to 10 participants.

Missing the final moments of a loved one's life

Another tragic effect of Covid-19 is the fact that many are not with their family and friends in their last moments. This, coupled with the inability to attend funerals, has meant that mourners are unable to say their last goodbyes and get a sense of closure.

I want to remove the stigma behind talking about pain and hurt, and [show] that not everyone grieves the same way

"Our mourning rituals are the first part in the grieving process, as they help us to rationalise what has happened. When we are unable to do this, it complicates the process, making us feel stuck," says Prendergast. Support groups further help you to understand that you are not the only one who had to be part of a virtual burial in the times we live in.

"Some grievers are unable to find comfort and support from their own family and friends, who in turn may be unsure how to soothe the pain,” says Vlekken. “Friendships, I found, are not immune to grief. From my personal experience, when my dad passed away, my closest friends were the first ones to vanish at a time when I needed them the most. Perhaps they didn’t know what to say or how to act. Maybe they were afraid to deal with my sadness and grief."

Grief support groups offer a safe space

Even in group therapy, the process of grieving is different for everyone. Mental health experts say there really is no right way to go through this. Some people react immediately after the loss, others take much longer to come to terms with their feelings. "There is no timeline for the grieving process," says Prendergast. "So, in our support groups we ask people not to give advice to others. We let them witness each other's grieving process and acknowledge their own feelings."

The beauty of mindfulness is that it invites us to be present to whatever is arriving in our feelings and emotions without judgment, shame or guilt

Dubai presenter and voice-over artist Katie Overy created That Grief Relief Podcast in October last year, delving into the grief of having lost both her parents in quick succession. She found humour as a way to cope through an immensely dark time in her life.

She also wanted to acknowledge that grief is not all sadness. "I want to remove the stigma behind talking about pain and hurt, and that not everyone grieves the same way," says Overy. She and her four brothers look back at the loss of their parents by celebrating the happy moments they shared together.

"I am not afraid to speak about my pain. Through hosting the podcast, I found a lot of people also want to share their grief stories. If even one person who listens to these talks understands that they are going to get through their grief, I believe it's good enough."

Being mindful in grief 

Bereavement aside, the pandemic has led to people experiencing loss at various levels – from layoffs and the end of relationships to a dearth of social interaction. The grief support sessions at Mindful ME in Dubai, which are available on Zoom for people in and outside the UAE, equip participants with tools for mindful awareness that allow them to better understand their feelings.

“During these sessions we become teachers for each other, supporting the grieving process. We explore what grief feels like for each individual and how it is expressed,” says Helen Williams, founder of Mindful ME.

“The beauty of mindfulness is that it invites us to be present to whatever is arriving in our feelings and emotions without judgment, shame or guilt.”