Coping with Grief & Loss During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Steven Borrero

As the world continues to fight the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the lives of so many have been taken, disrupted, or forever changed. In many communities, it feels like death is everywhere. Everyone is grieving something or someone during this time. In the era of social distancing, the inability to gather and mourn with loved ones has left the bereaved perplexed as to how to move forward. The most basic rituals to honor the deceased and facilitate the grieving process are currently not possible.

Facing Grief

Whether the death was caused by COVID-19 or an unrelated condition, grief is sure to follow for those left behind. Grief is defined as a normal response of sorrow, heartache, or loss that occurs after losing someone or something important to you. Grief is not a psychological disorder, but does involve several emotional, behavioral, and physical reactions that cause distinct changes:

– Intense feelings of sadness, emptiness, loss, or feeling nothing at all (numb)
– Waves of anger towards God, other people, the deceased, or nobody in particular
– Difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, or slowed thinking
– Muscle weakness or tension, abdominal discomfort, or changes in appetite
– Difficulty sleeping or persistent fatigue
– Desire to withdraw from others or disengage from usual activity
– Questioning the meaning and purpose of life

While grief feels different for each person, all these reactions are considered normal. Some may find relief in the support of their crew and family; others will prefer to be alone. For most who have lost someone, the experience of grief will linger but eventually becomes tolerable within a few weeks or months after the death. People find a way to accept the loss and function in their life, as it is now.

Complicated Grief

Sometimes, grief can remain all-consuming and a new sense of normal never seems to come. When grief does not resolve or becomes maladaptive, this is called complicated grief. Complicated grief can be diagnosed as clinical depression or prolonged grief disorder.

Below are some key differences between normal grief and complicated grief:

Normal Grief
– Waves of emotion come and go
– Despite a desire to withdraw, the individual benefits from social support
– Days are a mix of good and bad
– Minimally impaired daily functioning, sometimes not at all
– Thoughts of death are sporadic and tied to a desire to reunite with deceased or curiosity about death

Complicated Grief
– Sadness, anger, or despair are daily, persistent, and intolerable
– Individual is unable to feel comfort from social support
– Days are mostly bad
– Significantly impaired daily functioning
– Thoughts of death are recurring and tied to feeling worthless, undeserving, or an inability to cope

How Is Grief During a Pandemic Different?

Grief is always difficult, but the social distancing requirements of COVID-19 have fundamentally changed the ways we grieve. Mental health professionals agree that due to the absence of important traditions that formally honor the deceased, there is a greater risk for complicated grief. Without the ability to formally say goodbye to a loved one at their bedside or during a funeral or memorial service, those left behind may feel a sense of ambiguous or delayed grief. It can feel as though the person has not died, despite rationally knowing otherwise. Others may also feel angry that they were not able to say goodbye.

Honoring the Deceased During COVID-19

As a society, we have developed many ways to honor people we’ve lost. Hosting a wake, viewing, funeral service, a celebration of life, or Shiva are just some of the ways we honor our loved ones. While each practice has nuance, these traditions share some common goals that are essential to the grieving process:

– Acknowledge the reality of the death
– Find meaning in the loss
– Express emotions caused by the loss
– Receive and give support
– Remember or honor the deceased
– Say goodbye to the deceased

Although it may seem impossible to achieve these goals without in-person gatherings, we must try. This means finding new ways to facilitate the grieving process. Every family, community, crew, or department that has lost a loved one during the COVID-19 pandemic is faced with the same challenge. If you are among those who have lost someone you care about, then consider how the person would have wanted you to honor their memory.

Try these strategies to take care of yourself and facilitate the grieving process:

Acknowledge that this is hard. Losing someone you care about is already extremely difficult, while current circumstances only exacerbate the struggle. Permit yourself to feel what you are feeling without judgment.

Balance loss activities with healthy distraction. Loss activities that help you connect to your grief may include journaling or looking at old photos of the deceased. Activities such as exercise, cleaning, cooking, or watching a good movie can also provide a healthy break from the intensity of your emotions.

Attend or host an online funeral service. While funeral services during the COVID-19 pandemic are typically only open to immediate family members, some families are adapting by using video platforms to live stream the service online. While a video funeral can leave much to be desired, some may find that witnessing the funeral in real-time remains a meaningful experience.

Do something to honor the deceased. As a gesture of remembrance of the deceased, cook their favorite meal, watch their favorite movie, or donate to their favorite cause. Consider telling other family and friends about your action. They will likely provide you encouragement and support.

Stay connected to family, friends, and support. The simple act of hearing or seeing people who care about you can play an essential role in your healing. If you need more specific support, then consider attending a grief support group online.

If you are struggling to process your grief and feel stuck, it may be time to ask for professional help. Telehealth services can be a great alternative to office-based counseling. However, you choose to handle your grief is very personal. We hope this article gives you more guidance to support your grieving and to help you avoid the effects of complicated grief.

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