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Grieving is hard, but new text service means you don't have to do it alone

LOS ANGELES — This was supposed to be a good year for 18-year-old Renee Lund.

The Southern California teen would graduate from high school in the spring and head off to college in the fall. After losing her mother to Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in June, Lund knew that Mother's Day would be hard but that her group counseling sessions would help her through the dark times.

With much of her support system disrupted, Lund now waits for her phone to buzz twice a week with a text from Grief Coach, a messaging service that sends personalized support to subscribers.

The texts vary from week to week. Sometimes they serve as a reminder to practice self-care. Other times they prompt her to stop and think about the loss. Recently, Lund got a message on her birthday acknowledging that the milestone would be hard without her mom but reminding her that those who die never really leave us.

"It gives me a way to move forward," Lund said.

The coronavirus has forced millions of people to rethink mourning.

From Zoom memorials to drive-by interments, grieving during the COVID-19 pandemic rarely includes physical expressions of comfort. Instead, people must find new ways to mourn while remaining socially distant.

Emma Payne, a Seattle-based tech entrepreneur, founded Grief Coach in 2017, more than a decade after her husband died by suicide. At first, people called and wrote regularly, she said, but the messages slowly disappeared.

In 2015, she reunited with several of her husband's loved ones at the funeral of a mutual friend and realized that none of those people had forgotten her. "I spent 10 years not hearing from people, and 100 people spent 10 years feeling badly ... wishing they knew what to do but genuinely not knowing," Payne said.

Grief Coach subscribers pay a yearly fee of $99 and provide basic information about their loved ones, including name, age, cause of death and important dates. Payne's team of grief therapists and mobile developers then send customized texts at least twice a week for a year, each message tailored specifically to the subscriber and the person who was lost. The texts will use names, sometimes include resources like books or podcasts, and commemorate birthdays or anniversaries.

Subscribers can add friends or family who want to offer support but don't know how. Those texts will also be customized, offering suggestions like reminding someone that today would have been a friend's wedding anniversary or encouraging a loved one to use the name of the person who died.

"The worst thing that can happen after a loss is for people to stay away," Payne said. "I created this so no one would grieve alone."

Payne recently added a new cause of death to her service: COVID-19. Messages to mourners will inevitably address people's feelings of guilt because they couldn't sit bedside with someone who is dying.

"There's already a lot of stigma, anger and frustration," she said. "There is also sadness at not being with your person at the end."

Even people grieving a decades-old loss can feel triggered by the pandemic as daily lives are disrupted and wounds are reopened

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