Dealing with Grief and Loss Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

clock 9 Min Read

Brencia Daphne

23 July 2021

The covid -19 pandemic has and continues to impact our daily lives and routines, generating uncertainty and anxiety. Many changes (welcomed/unwelcomed) have already swept in our lives, resulting in a flood of losses, bringing in a wave of grief. A pandemic is an anomaly and our current reaction to this is acceptable; we’re scared, afraid, confused, sometimes even angry. People cope with it differently. Loss is a life experience that concerns something irrevocable and feelings connected to what is lost. Grief caused by loss is naturally integrated with the human experience but sometimes unfolds itself in ways that are difficult to define.

Can I feel grief even if I have not lost a loved one?

“Grief is unique - there is no 'right' or one way to grieve.”-Sue Morris

Loss related to grief is not just about death but can include several situations.

Whether it is the death of a loved one, facing unemployment, or compromising something from a special event to their everyday life; the population as a whole has had to deal with some kind of loss, often numerous losses, as a result of COVID-19. Given the circumstances, grief reactions are unwarranted; people demonstrate normal responses to an abnormal situation.

Research has shown that there are three frameworks relevant to grief, and they are:

Ambiguous loss - loss defined by uncertainty

Anticipatory grief - dreaded future loss

Complicated grief- a loss that is persistent, intense, and preoccupying

Families are uncertain about how long their stint of unemployment or furlough would last, children are confused about if or when they would return to school, and many are left wondering whether “life as they knew it” will become a distant memory. Such unresolved grief, called ambiguous loss, is arguably one of the most challenging losses with which to cope given the degree of uncertainty and the lack of answers.

People are also grieving of what is expected to come, a phenomenon known as anticipatory grief. With constant news coverage on the number of deaths and exponential spread of COVID-19, some may anxiously question whether they or a loved one will inevitably contract or even die from the virus. In addition to mourning over potential health scares or fatal outcomes, many are already grieving the anticipated losses of major milestones or events, such as graduations, family reunions, and weddings.

Complicated grief may look quite similar to anxiety or depression, but it is distinct in that it is a direct reaction to loss. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to social distancing requirements, many have been unable to mourn death properly or pay their respects, such as saying goodbye, holding funeral services or other ceremonies, or seeking support. Given the many circumstances and stressors limiting the ability to cope, complicated grief may even become more prevalent.

People tend to feel guilty or selfish in grieving losses unrelated to health, like physical safety and medical health care at the forefront of the nation’s concerns. It is not uncommon; nevertheless, no matter what the actual or anticipated loss may be, the reactions are real and valid. People may experience severe and dysfunctional symptoms of grief over an extended period, lasting months or even years, in response to a loss.

Dealing with the loss of a loved one

It can be exceptionally overwhelming and aggravating to deal with the loss of a loved one while coping with the fear and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional factors such as social distancing, “stay-at-home-orders,” and limits on the size of in-person gatherings have changed the way friends and family can gather and grieve; including holding traditional funeral services, regardless of whether or not the person’s death occurred due to COVID-19. However, there are still a lot of things you can do by yourself to overcome this loss:

  • Reviewing and acknowledging one's own experiences with grief and loss
  • It helps to sort out a lot of unresolved and unanswered issues in life about death and loss. Our own losses can revisit us, triggered by a familiar sense of smell, expression, or experience. We need to acknowledge the feelings related to these losses and allow ourselves to be free enough to feel new feelings for new people that enter our lives, and relationships. If we can learn to do this, we can do the important work of helping others do the same.

  • Reach out to people.
  • Invite people to call you, or host conference calls with family members and friends to stay connected. Ask family and friends to share stories and pictures with you via mailed letters, email, phone, video chat, apps or social media.

  • Create a daily routine.
  • Try to get out of bed at the same time each day, eat at regular meal times, plan your day in "chunks" of time for meals, exercise, tasks related to your loved one's estate or death. Work and connect online with family and friends. Write a daily to-do list and check off items as you complete them, such as attending to administrative tasks or sorting through your loved one's belongings

  • Check your thinking,
  • It can be easy to blame ourselves even when there is no evidence for doing so.

    To check your thinking, ask yourself: “How would I advise a friend in the same situation?” or “What would my loved one say if they were here now?”

    It often helps to write down your thoughts and your answers to the questions above and try to stick to the facts.

    It can be helpful to remind ourselves and others: We are in a pandemic that has caught the entire world by surprise. Difficult decisions had to be made for the health of our society as a whole, which was beyond the control of any individual.
  • Create a post covid bucket list
  • It is important to remind ourselves that this pandemic will soon come to an end and we will get back to our normal lives.

    Make a to-do list of tasks that you will need to complete when the restrictions ease, this way you will have something to look forward to.

  • Stay connected
  • It is necessary to remind ourselves that we have people who love and appreciate us and that we are not alone.

    Dealing with ambiguous loss

    According to a Family therapist and psychologist Pauline Boss, “What is distressing us is not just the virus, but the ambiguity surrounding it, what it will do, and what we should do about it… Science provides some answers, but we are experiencing uncertainty, and that’s very stressful for a society that is accustomed to solving problems and having definitive answers.”

  • Cognitive rewiring
  • Try to shift your thinking from absolute thinking - “It’s terrible … we’re going to die … I can’t cope with this” , to- “It’s a terrible stress right now, and I can learn to be more resilient because of it.”

  • Review our own experiences,
  • Not only to understand and respond effectively to the grief of others, but also to ensure that we are adequately aware of, and attending to, our own grief, we need to review our own experiences. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, no “normal” timetable for grieving.

    Healing happens gradually and cannot be hurried.

    In times of crisis, however, key factors and reactions can intensify your grief and hinder your ability to heal and recover from it. These include:

    Heightened anxiety

    Linked to the uncertainty about the future, the loss of familiar routines, and concerns about your own or your loved ones’ health/well being.

    Heightened sense of loss:

    Linked to the death of a loved one or pandemic-related losses that leave you feeling overwhelmed, wondering how to put life’s pieces back together.

    Increased isolation and intensified grief

    Whether from stay-at-home orders or social distancing measures that have compromised the critical, valuable support provided by funerals, memorials, and religious services.

    It is important to identify when you or a loved one is showing such signs of heightened anxiety and dysfunction, this is the time one must consider stepping in and seek professional psychological help and intervention.

Dealing with anticipatory grief

During the pandemic, you may grieve due to loss of a job, inability to connect in-person with friends, family, or religious organizations, missing special events and milestones (such as graduations, weddings, vacations), and experiencing drastic changes to daily routines and ways of life that bring comfort. You may also feel a sense of guilt for grieving over losses that seem less important than the loss of life. Grief is a universal emotion; there is no right or wrong way to experience it, and all losses are significant.

Here are some ways to cope with feelings of grief:

  • Acknowledge your losses (and your feelings of grief.) Find ways to express your grief. Some people express grief and find comfort through art, gardening, writing, talking to friends or family, cooking, music, gardening or other creative practices.

  • Consider developing new rituals in your daily routine to stay connected with your loved ones, to replace those that have been lost. People who live together may consider playing board games and exercising together outdoors. People who live alone or are separated from their loved ones may consider interacting through phone calls and apps that virtually play games together.

  • If you are worried about future losses, try to stay in the present and focus on aspects of your life that you have control over right now.

Calming your anxiety begins with learning how to process grief during a crisis. Consider these self-care tips:

  • Minimize watching, reading, or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed. Seek information only from trusted sources.
  • Avoid unhelpful coping strategies and substances, such as consumption and reliance on tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs.
  • Be careful with “what if” thoughts. Manage your worst-case scenario thinking.
  • Engage in personal self-care activities that bring joy (e.g., phone/virtual communication with friends and family, reading, listening to podcasts, watching comedy).
  • Practice relaxation, meditation, and self-expression via books, apps, and online videos (e.g., yoga, mindful meditation, relaxation, writing, music, art, dance).
  • Stay in the present. Take one day at a time.
  • Practice relaxation, meditation, and self-expression via books, apps, and online videos (e.g., yoga, mindful meditation, relaxation, writing, music, art, dance).
  • Consider telehealth for mental health support (online consultations, teletherapy).
  • Eat sufficient and healthy food. Exercise when you can.
  • Monitor yourself for prolonged sadness, difficulty sleeping, and hopelessness.
  • Remind yourself how you coped with past life challenges and implement those coping strategies into your current challenges

  • Without a shadow of a doubt, we are certainly living in a difficult time accompanied by grief and loss, but it is also a time where humanity has never been greater and more capable. So let us be more open, kind, and gentle towards ourselves and others.

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