Attending to Grief in the Time of COVID-19

By: Jonathan Block

As the death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed 100,000 in the country, many of us have family members or friends that have died from the disease, or know of people who have. As a result, many people are grieving at the unexpected loss of loved ones.

Grief is a natural human response to loss, and everyone experiences it at least once in their lifetime. People express it in many different ways and for different lengths of time. For the most part, there is no wrong way to express grief (unless it leads to life-threatening actions) and there is no right or wrong length of time to grieve.

SPH Student Wellness Counselor Sherry Adams addressed attending to grief in her third and final session in the Remaining Resilient During the COVID-19 Pandemic Workshop series. She noted that COVID-19 has impacted the way in which people express grief due to ongoing public health restrictions. This has resulted in many people being unable to comfort loved ones in person, engage in gatherings that mark the end of a live, offer or receive physical affection from loved ones, and proceed with death rituals in a time-sensitive manner or that are consistent with one’s religious or cultural beliefs.

Adams says that individuals in groups that have been historically marginalized are dealing with COVID-19 issues as well as additional challenges, all of which can compound grieving. For example, Asian-Americans are being targeted with hate speech and hate crimes because some mistakenly blame them for the pandemic. In addition, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the African-American and Latinx communities. Also, African-Americans and other minorities continue to face racial injustices including racial profiling, unwarranted violence from police, over-crowded prisons and immigration detention facilities.

Adams notes that there are six widely accepted stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance and meaning. The latter stage could mean starting a charity to honor a lost loved one or looking for meaningful moments with that loved one. “Meaning emphasizes that person existed and had an impact on the world,” she says.

When it comes to grief, many people have certain misconceptions about it. For example, some believe that if you don’t cry over a loss, you’re not sorry about it. But Adams says there are many ways sadness is expressed by people. Another myth she debunked is that it is important to “be strong” following a loss. But, “showing your true feelings can be helpful to your process and model healthy expression for others,” including children, she adds. Finally, Adams notes that there is no set time for grief to last. “Grief is a lifelong journey that changes with time but does not end.”

Adams offers many tips for attending to grief. They include acknowledging and expressing your pain; understanding it can trigger different emotions and sometimes physical symptoms; seeking out emotional support from trusted individuals and groups; increasing self-case when possible; and committing to practice greater self-compassion. She also notes it is important to identify the difference between grief and depression. The latter is a prolonged sense of denial and acceptance – complicated grief – which can lead to difficulty functioning and ultimately depression.

Although you might be well meaning, there are certain phrases to avoid if you are trying to console someone who is grieving. These include:

  • At least he/she is in a better place.
  • Lots of people die young.
  • There is a reason for everything.
  • Aren’t you over it yet?
  • I know how you feel.
  • Be strong.

Instead, Adams advises trying these phrases: 

  • I am so sorry for your loss.
  • I wish I had the right words, just know I care.
  • I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I am here to help.
  • You and your loved ones are in my thoughts and prayers.
  • My favorite memory of your loved one is…
  • Say nothing — just be with the person.

Although many people who experience grief can endure psychological struggles as a result, they can often experience positive growth, a term known as post-traumatic growth. But Adams notes that not everyone experiences such growth and even if individuals do, it doesn’t mean they will avoid suffering now or in the future.

There are four factors leading to post-traumatic growth: honest optimism, perception of control over events (taking action to change a situation, or if that’s not possible, change our orientation to a situation); coping style (active is more helpful than avoidant); and strong sense of self. For the last item, Adams defines it as “developing a clear purpose and increasing self-esteem…note what your intentions are after the loss.”

Sherry Adams held previous workshops on self-care to manage stress and anxiety, and understanding and managing stress and loneliness. To read blogs summarizing those sessions, click here.