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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Families have been forever changed by COVID-19. Counselors say, the isolation during this time of immense loss further complicates the grieving.

In response to that grief, Baptist is starting grief sessions this month specifically for those who lost a loved one to COVID-19.

Kenny and Anita Howk married in 1975. Their pictures tell their love story love through the years — a lifetime, built on integrity, faith and love.

 “Every journey begins with one step,” Anita said.

Their journey led to a life of devotion until Kenny’s death in October of 2018. And Anita initially tried to tackle her grief alone.

“The first step. I was reluctant. As I said, my husband had passed for 15 months before I just couldn’t do it. Prayer couldn’t do it,” Anita said.

So, she reached out to the Baptist Centers for Good Grief where she started sessions with a grief counselor last February.

“It has been really helpful for me to feel like I’m still trying to put the pieces back together,” Anita said.

But just a month into those sessions, Shelby County would learn of its first COVID-19 case, changing everything in our lives, including how we grieve.

Like most places, Baptist had to adapt, continuing those services through virtual grief sessions.

“Grief is lonely and isolating when we’re not in a pandemic,” said Angela Hamblen Kelly with Baptist Centers for Good Grief. “Then you add the pandemic to it and that takes grief to extremes.”

Many people are having to say goodbye to their loved ones over the phone or through Facetime due to COVID-19 restrictions, further complicating their grief.

Then there’s the lingering fear associated with the virus itself.

“What we’re seeing with so many people is what we call ‘grief overload’, and that is grieving the death of their loved on from COVID-19 but also continuing to grieve because COVID-19 has not gone away,” Kelly said.

In less than a year, the Shelby County Health Department reports more than 1,000 people have died from COVID-19 — a number that grows each day.

“When you have a loved one that’s died from COVID-19 you think, ‘what if someone else in my family gets sick and dies or what if I do?’”

Which is why the center has now announced a six-week virtual support group for those grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19.

It’s opened the door for people to connect and begin the healing process.

“People are at home, and they have the photos of their loved ones right there. There really has been some very meaningful sharing and healing able to happen over the virtual platform,” Kelly said.

It’s powerful healing Anita Houk has experienced.

 “I was very surprised that I felt grateful instead of just crushed,” Anita said.

Especially considering she was initially reluctant to participate.

“I’m not a group person, but it was really helpful to hear other people’s stories, to get their encouragement, to get that uplift not only from the counselors, who are great, but from the other people who have losses,” Anita said.

Participates form new bonds without uttering a single word at times.

“Silence is ok. In fact, there have been two people I know of who had absolutely nothing to say during a whole session.”

Because grief, is a journey, with ups and downs, highs and lows.

“It is our job to join people where they are in their grief journey,” Kelly said. “It’s not our journey, we’re not here to force them somewhere. We’re to join them where they are and to walk that with them.”

 “Grieving, mourning is exhausting. It is exhausting and that’s what we need to know among ourselves is that we’re not going crazy,” Anita said. “This is real. COVID is real. The grieving is real. I just think we have to be vulnerable in order to heal.”

The one-hour weekly sessions continue through the end of February. If you want more information, contact the center at 901-861-5656.