HOUSTON - This holiday season, many are dealing the loss of a loved one to COVID-19.
Mental health experts say this is especially hard on families because many of them could not be there for those final moments or grieve together in-person.
"We couldn't visit him and the doctor was nice enough to do a Zoom call, so we could all at least say our goodbyes even though he was unconscious," recalled Ben Ballanfant.
Ben's father, Burt Ballanfant, was the former Mayor of West University Place. Burt Ballanfant died from COVID-19 in late March.
The 27-year-old is known for his lifelong commitment to serving others.
As the holidays approach, one way Ben is trying to cope is by going down memory lane particularly to the fun times. "Laughter is really good medicine and a positive coping strategy to deal with loss," said Dr. Michael McClam, Associate Chief, Inpatient Services with Menninger Clinic.
McClam says sharing stories can help people cope with the loss of a loved one during the holidays. He also recommends finding a community of support -- even though gatherings may have to be virtual.
"The more that people keep those thoughts to themselves, they feel more alone and isolated," McClam added. He also encourages people to practice self-compassion.
"Particularly with the way that loved ones have had to die alone without their families so people feel a lot of guilt," he stated. He adds those feelings of guilt are normal and to be expected.
Dr. McCalm also notes how COVID-19 disrupts how people would traditionally grieve.
Ben remembers how only a handful of people were allowed at his father's funeral. He says they also kept at a physical distance. "There was none of the physical and psychological comfort that you get to do when you're saying your goodbyes to someone you love," Ben said.
"And, I still think that's hitting some of us that it almost doesn't seem real sometimes."
He wants to let others know they are not alone. "Even though sometimes it can feel like it since you're not getting to go through that normal healing process with one another but, you know, essentially your family has grown a little because we're all in it together," Ben concluded.
Dr. McClam encourages people to reach out to places like Menninger Clinic for support groups or to talk to a therapist.
The City of Houston also has a COVID-19 mental health support program with a free hotline to access counselors at (713) 999-9442.
The service is available 7 days a week from 1:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m. There is also the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.