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One year after first COVID death in Georgia, grief still an ongoing process for many

But mental health expert Dr. Suvrat Bhargave has suggestions that could help amid a year that has changed how we say goodbye.

ATLANTA — This week marks one year since the first known COVID-19 death in Georgia. 

Since then, nearly 16,000 people have died in our state. Many of those losses have been made even harder due to the pandemic restrictions around hospital visitation and funerals.

These included the loss of 54-year-old Washington Varnum six weeks ago.

"My heart, pain in my chest - I just bent over and I would say, 'Lord, just ease the pain'," said his widow, Carmen.

Because of the pandemic, there were limits on the number of people who could attend his funeral service.

"My husband had a big personality so he wanted a nice big homecoming," Carmen said. "If it wasn't here, it would be much bigger than what it was because so many people loved him and he loved so many people."

Dr. Suvrat Bhargave said Carmen's story is one he's heard often, with a loss like this during the pandemic taking the trauma and grief to another level.

"For some, they couldn't be there with their loved ones as they were passing. For some, it's that they can't grieve the ways they'd always imagined," said Bhargave.

He said being forced to hold a small funeral as Carmen did could leave families feeling dejected.

"It feels like you're being let down or you can't grieve or you're letting your loved one down," Bhargave said.

He said that while grieving is different for everyone, there are some things that help. 

"This is the time to surround yourself with other people who are going through this with you," said Bhargave.

For Carmen, that meant joining support groups on social media

"This one is the wives that have lost husbands to covid," she said. "It kind of helps us know that it's gonna be OK at some point. [We'll] get over the hump."

And even if it is over Zoom, there are ways to get help.

"If you find yourself stuck in any one emotion, that's when you really need to reach out for help no matter what that emotion is," said Bhargave.

"I was getting two hours of sleep and then four," Carmen said. "I had to go to counseling. I have a counselor I talk to now."

As we mark one year since Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic,

Carmen said she’s reminded of her loss every time she turns on the news.

"When they talk about so many lives lost to COVID, it really hits home, it really hits home," she said.

Bhargave said stories about COVID can be a trigger to people who have lost someone.

"They see coverage of it on the news and for some people that brings the grief up all over again and it feels very raw," said Bhargave.

That can make a hard situation even harder.

"For some people, they feel like their loved one was just a number or a statistic," Bhargave said. "If you know you're being triggered, give yourself permission to limit how you receive information." 

And while a shared experience like the pandemic could bring feelings of camaraderie, it could also have the opposite effect.

"It is a shared experience that we've been through and for some people, it's even more difficult and depressing because they have their own loss on top of that," said Bhargave.

Bhargave said that's important to remember, especially as we near the one-year mark.

"An anniversary means a lot for some people, an anniversary is when it opens up the grieving process again,' Bhargave said. "They experience a little more of that loss."

Carmen said she's doing all she can to get through her loss and the pandemic at the same time.

"My life, of course, will never be the same; so, I'm having to learn my new normal," she said.