Chloe Zelkha understands what it’s like to lose a parent. Four years ago, when she had just turned 26, her father died suddenly from an aortic aneurysm.
As a result of that life-changing experience, the Cincinnati woman feels she’s able to relate to others her age who’ve experienced sudden loss. In these challenging times, Zelkha has found her calling as the co-founder of the COVID Grief Network for Young Adults. The mission of the organization is to connect young people who are grieving with others in their 20s and 30s who know and understand. “This is a huge crisis and there are a lot of folks who need care right now,” says the first-year student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where she is studying to become a rabbi. “Being in community together is a powerful connection.”
How it works
The all-volunteer network got its start about a year ago at the beginning of the pandemic. Participants learn about it through Facebook, Instagram, Google searches, word-of-mouth and media.
The nonprofit organization offers free support in a variety of ways. Participants can attend six grief support sessions with a caring volunteer who may be a chaplain, a therapist, a social worker or a student in a related field. Zelkha says it’s important to understand that the sessions are designed for support, not professional counseling or therapy.
After those initial sessions, an individual may join a group of 8 to 12 people who meet weekly for eight weeks. Many develop friendships beyond the official timeline.
“My deepest hope is that we undo some of the isolation that folks grieving during COVID are experiencing,” says Zelkha. “We hope they feel connected to a community that has their back and that they have the space to honor and process their loss.”
What’s so different about the deaths and illnesses during this past year, she says, is that it can be difficult for mourners to find closure when they didn’t get to say goodbye to their loved one in person and didn’t get to mark the loss in a way that they would in normal times — with a large funeral, a wake, or the seven-day period in Judaism known as sitting shiva.
“So in some ways people are grieving a double loss,” she says. “They are grieving the person they loved and the way they would have grieved if not for COVID.”
Zelkha says many of the young people are experiencing rage. “We see a lot of anger because the losses so often feel preventable,” she explains. “People may feel if the government and society had chosen a different path, their loved one might still be alive.”
Before finding the support group Ariel Tusa had been feeling isolated. “Though I have my older brothers and my husband to lean on, it felt lonely not knowing anyone else who has lost someone to the virus,” says the Louisiana woman. “There are so many aspects of my dad’s illness, hospitalization, death and funeral arrangements that I hadn’t been able to process out loud until the group. I can’t express how powerful connecting with other COVID mourners has been. I’m still struggling with grief and waves of emotion every hour of every day, but the group has helped me feel more comfortable talking about my grief and most of all connect with people who get it.”
More about Zelkha
Zelkha grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. Immediately after her father’s death, she says she drove her dad’s car, went to his favorite coffee shops and shared stories about him with others. “Those weeks of being surrounded by our community and feeling empowered in my grieving process were really healing,” she says.
About a year later, when the initial loss wasn’t so fresh, she realized she wasn’t quite ready to go back to her previous life. “I needed to lean into being with death and dying and spend more time with other people who were going through those moments,” she says. She had previously been working in the Jewish spiritual world and decided to do a residency as a hospital chaplain.
“While I was there sitting with folks who were dying and with their grieving families, I noticed a gap in grief care for young adults in their 20s and 30s like me who had lost someone important,” she says. “There were places for young children and older adults, but not age-specific offerings for those in my age group.”
In 2018, she began getting together with a few friends who had also lost someone and also happened to be grief workers — therapists, community organizers, chaplains. “We started putting on sleep-over weekend retreats for those who had lost a sibling, a dear friend, a parent. We found sometimes people need peer connection and community more than they need clinical care.”
The special weekends included an opening circle of sharing, workshops, talking about a meaningful object that related to their loss. “Picture a bunch of people sitting around a bonfire with 40 other young people who know what it’s like,” Zelkha explains.
Starting the COVID grief group
When COVID started, the group realized they were no longer going to be able to host the in-person retreats, and also that a lot of people their age were about to join their ranks. They realized they could mobilize people to offer grief support related to the pandemic.
“We had seen how powerful it was to connect with people who have experienced something similar to you on many levels and we knew that a lot of young adults would be losing someone to COVID or have someone seriously ill with COVID,” Zelkha says.
Neely Grobani, who lives in New York, says the support group made a huge impact in a short amount of time. “It’s given me space to feel seen, heard, supported, validated and less alone. It is one of the only spaces in my life right now where I feel I can be wholly myself, with my anger and fear and sadness, without judgment or expectation.”
The COVID Grief Network now has 100 active volunteers and has matched more than 300 young adults with someone offering support. Both participants and volunteers come from all over the country and meet on Zoom.
Zelkha is part of the leadership team that oversees the project.
At the same time, she continues her rabbinical studies. “I think I want to be a rabbi because I want to offer people transformative experiences and I think the spiritual community and Jewish community can be a powerful home for those kinds of experiences.”
Advice from COVID Grief Network
The COVID Grief Network offers this advice for young adults who’ve lost someone to COVID-19:
1. You’re not supposed to know how to do this.
It’s 100 percent normal to feel too young for this, or like there’s some big secret of “how to grieve right” you’re missing out on. The truth is there’s no one roadmap for navigating the fallout after a big loss. It’s hard to lose someone, especially during COVID. There’s no “figuring it out,” there’s just moving through it every day, and it’s messy.
2. However it unfolds is OK.
There is no one right way to grieve. It’s OK to cry, or not to cry. It’s OK to rage and yell, and it’s OK to be quiet. It’s OK to feel connected to family and friends, and it’s OK to feel like no one gets you. Grief is rough; don’t make it harder than it already is by judging yourself and what’s coming up for you.
3. Grief isn’t linear.
One second you’re totally fine, and the next you’re bawling your eyes out. Makes sense. Grief can take us by surprise, and it doesn’t always behave itself. Expect twists and turns in your process. They’re normal. Grief is a wild ride, and it’s definitely not linear.
4. You’re not broken.
You’re not broken; you’re grieving. Some people don’t know the difference, and our advice is to tune them out and do your thing. There’s no “fixing” you, because you’re feeling and doing it all right. And unfortunately, there is no one magic thing that’ll fix it. Grief isn’t a problem to be solved. Find the people who will bear witness to things just the way they are, instead of trying to change or correct your process.
5. Company can help.
Finding “your people” can help undo some of the isolation of losing someone, especially in this time. We recommend talking to other folks in their 20s and 30s who’ve had a significant experience of loss, and especially with other folks who’ve lost someone to COVID. If you want company, come join our crew at www.covidgriefnetwork.org.
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