How is COVID Grief Different and What Can You Do About It?

COVID Grief: A Closer Look

The pandemic is raging throughout the country and here in Chicago.  At the time of this article, Illinois is approaching a million confirmed cases; Lakeview’s 60613 and 60657 zip codes have seen well over 5,000 cases; and, over 3,100 people have died from the virus in Cook County.

But these statistics aren’t just numbers.  They are people.  Real lives.  Maybe you, or someone you know, is suffering the loss of a loved one from COVID-19?  If so, you might be noticing that the grief of this loss doesn’t feel like other grief.  That’s because it’s not.

Grief is always influenced by a variety of factors.  Individual factors (such as coping skills and underlying mental health concerns, change the way those grieving are impacted.  But, contextual factors (such as who died, how they died, timing, etc) also impact grieving.  This means that grief is often quite different for different people.  It’s always complex; but, COVID grief is even more complex.

COVID grief is different in 5 notable ways:

1. Multi-layered

Unlike “normal times,” people are already grieving many losses – even without the loss of a loved one.  Grief is the experience of loss.  While we typically think about this loss as the loss of life, grief (often much milder) is experienced with any loss.  And, this pandemic has meant many losses.  Jobs have been lost, Hanukkah and Christmas gatherings cancelled, business closed, street festivals missed, school missed.  And personal losses, like missed hugs, comfort at the grocery store, and evacuated retirement savings.  There has largely been a loss of safety and economic security. These multi-layered losses, mean multi-layered grief.  The very experience of grieving the loss of life is complicated by having already been grieving many smaller, day-to-day losses.

2. Support Systems are already Challenged

The support of other people is often one of the most comforting aspects for those grieving.  However, for those grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID, those support systems are challenged.  The people that might normally support you are limited in their potential for support because of risks of infection.  Further, social supporters have their own grief of normalcy, day-to-day losses, and jobs. Spikes in depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol abuse are notable.  And, because of the transmittable nature of the virus, your social support network might simultaneously be grieving the loss of other life among family, coworkers, or community members.  Taken together, this means that social supports are often less effective in their support.

3. Ambiguous Loss 

Researcher, Dr. Pauline Boss, coined the term “ambiguous loss” to describe situations when emotional and physical realities don’t align (e.g., A person with dementia who is physically present, but can no longer connect; or, a child who goes missing, but their family members still feel them as emotionally present even when they are physically not.).

Because the health decline of some with COVID is rapid, and loved ones are not able to visit hospitals to witness the decline, they often experience this ambiguous loss.

Further, rituals (like funerals and shivas) often combat ambiguous loss and help ease the pain of grieving.  But, due to social distancing requirements and needs, many people have had to say goodbye to their loved ones without these helpful rituals.

4. Questions of Responsibility Arise

Grieving is especially complicated when those who are left behind could conceivably assume responsibility for the death of their loved one.  For example, the driver of a car that crashes and leads to the death of a family member will likely have an exceptionally difficult time grieving.  Covid grief can be similar.  Often the virus spreads within a family or social community, leading those who survived to assume responsibility for the death.  While the reality is often more complicated than one person being solely responsible for another’s death, the reality is often distorted by the brains of survivors.

5. Survivor’s Guilt

A component of healthy grief requires thinking about a promising future, considering a new normal, and accepting that the loved one will not be an active participant in that new normal.  It’s common for this to cultivate some survivor’s guilt –  or guilt when thinking about a future without the loved one.  However, this is complicated in COVID grief.  Because of the virus’s erratic nature, it’s often unclear why some people live and others don’t.  Thoughts that COVID deaths are wrong or unfair abound.  And, unfortunately, the likelihood of survivor’s guilt increases.

Even healthy grief is hard.  It’s painful, it’s lonely, and it’s complex.

You might consider:

  • Reflecting on ways to achieve more balance between allowing for your grief and taking care of your own life
  • Reading Option B or The Five Invitations
  • Journaling about your grief and your lost loved one
  • Strengthening relationships with others
  • Seeking opportunities to tell and come to terms with the story of your loved one’s death
  • Incorporate reminders of your loved one into your life, instead of avoiding them

Look out for problematic patterns.  Some common ones include – not allowing yourself to consider a future without the person you lost; taking total responsibility for your loved one’s death; prolonged numbness or not allowing self to experience emotional pain; and, increased alcohol or drug use.

Sometimes the help of a professional is needed.  If you or someone you know is experiencing six or more months of grief, preoccupation with a loved one’s death, intense emotional pain, profound loneliness, difficulty accepting the permanence of the loss, avoidance of reminders the person is dead, or feeling life is meaningless, you are likely experiencing complicated grief and should absolutely seek external support.  Although it can feel really lonely, especially in COVID grief, you are not alone.