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14.5K South Carolinians died from COVID-19, counselor helps navigate holiday grief

A red bulb on a Christmas tree on Dec. 23, 2021 (Simon Williams, WPDE)
A red bulb on a Christmas tree on Dec. 23, 2021 (Simon Williams, WPDE)
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As several families prepare for Christmas celebrations this year, it may be tough for the families of 14,550 South Carolinians who lost their lives to COVID-19.

The oldest was 106 years old. The youngest was less than one-year-old.

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In Horry County, 928 people have lost their lives to the virus. In Florence County, 554 people died, in Darlington County, 238, and in Georgetown County 190 have died.

The grief is even larger than those numbers; for each one, there are brothers, sisters, and cousins grieving too.

“A lot of times, people’s grief involves feeling like the person just disappeared,” Professional Counselor Sandy Quast of Coastal Haven Counseling said.

For them to move forward with their life while they’re still here they need to kind of create a new normal for themself.

She said the key to navigating the first holiday without someone is to understand that person is not gone, but their presence is just different.

“Statistically a lot of people after 6 months start to get used to life changes, and of course as one calendar year goes by, a whole year of holidays and different things, which are learning to do things in a different way than they’ve done before,” Quast said.

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“There's always that point too where, after someone passes away, that they actually start laughing at a joke, and they start to think, ‘oh wait, I shouldn’t be doing that. Because I shouldn’t be happy, I shouldn’t be laughing.’ And of course, is that really what the person who’s no longer with you would want?" she said.

She said it’s a process of learning to remember and celebrate them that can help.

“Going to the favorite restaurant of the person who passed away, could be making a keepsake box, some people make quilts—they'll knit pieces of the persons’ clothes together to make a quilt or a blanket so it kind of feels comforting for them as well," Quast suggests.

She said families could also create a photo album together, or set a place for them at dinner.

“If someone had a special drink that they liked, at Christmas dinner maybe everyone will do a toast, and everyone will have a little bit of that drink is,” she said.

“If you are at a family gathering, you guys can go in the backyard and plant a tree to remember somebody, and then each year you get together it’s to remember that person," said Quast.

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Someone could also take a pen-to-paper approach, and journal their feelings.

“Sometimes people feel like they’ve left things unsaid, and there could be some bad feelings from that also. And that’s kind of a way of releasing that, a lot of times putting that pen to paper helps them clear out their mind and helps them say things they wanted to say before," she said.

For those dreading the first holiday without a loved one, Quast said planning the event out can help avoid surprises and ease anxiety.

“If you plan out activities, and kind of know what’s going to be coming as far as the hours you’re going to be out of the house, that can be very helpful," said Quast.

She said there are also grief groups available.

“Which is people kind of going through the same sort of thing, you know they may have loved ones who have passed from COVID, or other things,” she said.

That's the idea of grief groups; everyone is kind of going through the same thing in a different way, and that’s exactly how COVID has been for people," said Quast.

There are groups online too, for those who don’t want to meet in person.

“A lot of times, you don’t have to talk, you can just kind of sit, be a fly on a wall if you don’t feel like talking, but you kind of feel like you’re not alone in this," she added.

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Ignoring the feelings, though, can start to cause physical issues.

“Chronic pain, and things like that can a lot of times be associated with mental health issues," she said.

She said every person is different, though, and if someone seeks counseling, they can form a personalized plan forward.

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“Life will go on. And it will go on in a different way. And not because you chose it that way, but because that’s the way life is playing out at this point in time," Quast said.

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