Six experts explain how to recognize the many new faces of grief during a pandemic.
As of this writing, the coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 50,000 people in the United States and more than 200,000 people worldwide. These deaths’ inevitable companion is grief, but the turmoil of the pandemic is altering and interrupting the normal course of mourning. People are experiencing many different kinds of loss simultaneously—some of them unique to or changed by this moment in history.
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Because of the risk of viral transmission, many people are dying apart from their loved ones, and many others are mourning apart from theirs. Meanwhile, those who haven’t lost someone personally are surrounded by daily reminders of death, and are mourning their lost routines, jobs, and plans for the future, all while fearing for their health and that of their friends and family.
“I think that this situation is very, very difficult for people,” says George Bonanno, a researcher who studies grief. “But by the same token, people will get through it, probably the same way that people have gotten through other kinds of losses. They’ll just need to be a little more creative about it.” Based on decades of research, Bonanno calls grief a “natural adaptive reaction”—a painful but necessary mental recalibration to accommodate a new absence.
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Bonanno was one of half a dozen experts I consulted in an attempt to catalog how mourning is changing in the coronavirus era. These six, whose fields span academic research and clinical psychology, were not in conversation with one another, but they addressed many of the same themes. Their comments below have been edited for length and clarity.
The pandemic has made the usual gatherings that follow a death dangerous, depriving mourners of a traditional funeral as well as the comfort of friends’ and loved ones’ physical presence.
Megan Devine, a psychotherapist and the author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand: Grief can be a really isolating experience, and that has been very much magnified during the pandemic. The things we do to support people who are grieving—coming over to someone’s house with a casserole, attending a wake—are not options in the way that we usually think of them. On top of that, everybody is struggling with their own stuff, so the available emotional bandwidth is very much reduced.
George Bonanno, a clinical-psychology professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the author of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss: Cultures all over the world have these rituals where people take care of a bereaved person, and one thing these rituals do is connect the people who are present—the person they’re mourning may be gone, but they see that others are still here. People who come to your wedding are in your life forever, in a strange way, and it’s sort of the same thing with funerals. These people came together around a death in your life, which is really a powerful thing. That’s the way it works normally.
Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Council on Contemporary Families: Humans are wired to reassure and to comfort. In my practice, I’ve seen that it is not only distressing to be deprived of receiving comfort, but similarly to be deprived of the ability to provide comfort. Not being able to directly comfort loved ones who are grieving right now is also painful.
Kami Fletcher, a history professor at Albright College and the president of the Collective for Radical Death Studies: One of the things about mourning and grief in African American communities is that we’ve been stereotyped so many times in life, but in death we are able to have our humanity: You have people in the community who are able to show who this person was by getting up at the podium to talk about someone or playing a slideshow of their life. The fact that we cannot gather and grieve is a really big blow.
Unable to be physically together, many people have conducted memorial services on group video calls. Virtual funerals are not inherently worse than in-person events—but they are very different.
Bonanno: When we gather to mourn, we tell stories about the person who died and make little speeches about them, which helps build an image of the person that you take with you: They may be gone, but this is who they were. I think people have to do their best to find ways to do that while apart. You can create Facebook pages or email people or send letters and ask people if they have stories to share. I’ve participated in a few of those kinds of things with friends of mine who have lost loved ones, and I think they’re quite powerful. Not everyone is as comfortable doing that as [they would be doing] a memorial service, but that’s what we have right now.
Devine: One thing I’ve heard from people recently is that the virtual funeral—or memorial, or wake, or shiva—was more moving to them than an in-person one. In-person funerals are familiar: You dress up, you go, you pay respects, you do the receiving line, and then everybody gathers for food afterward. Having to come together in a virtual space is new, and that act of novelty can break us out of things and make us feel and connect in different ways, though certainly that’s not true for everybody.
The thing to remember is that there’s no time limit on when you could hold an in-person funeral. You can do that at a later date, so a virtual service doesn’t have to be a flat-out replacement. There are some really creative ways to plan a virtual service. Maybe you could send out a recipe that the person used to make and have everybody make it so that you can all join in a meal together.
Because of the risk of viral transmission, many people whose loved ones die in the hospital are unable to be with them in their final days. Those people lose an opportunity for last words and closure.
Bonanno: When we lose a loved one, we struggle a lot more if we imagine them in pain at the end of their lives. It’s harder to grieve those kinds of losses, because you picture your loved one suffering, and in the case of a death in a hospital, there’s a sense of fear and loneliness that you can imagine them having experienced.
Devine: Not being at your person’s bedside at the end of their life adds extra layers of suffering. It might add guilt: Even though you weren’t allowed to be there, there’s a sense that you should have been anyway, or that you should have realized that they were sick sooner. There’s also a lot of survivor’s guilt around the coronavirus because the virus is transmitted by close contact—someone might think, I just saw my dad three weeks ago. Maybe I gave this to him. That survivor’s guilt is uncomfortable, and adds extra layers of suffering on top of grief itself, but it’s very normal.
Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus of family social science at the University of Minnesota and the author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief: When people don’t have a body to bury, it’s quite natural for them to hope that the person who died is still alive somewhere. As human beings, we need to see the body of our loved one, to have remains, in order to know that our loved one has been transformed into another state. That’s missing now for many people because the body is whisked away and they don’t get to see it for a certain amount of time. So even many clear-cut losses have become ambiguous—unclear and lacking resolution.