Grieving in a Pandemic

We are so very sorry you have lost someone dear to you. Whether they died of Coronavirus or another way, you are facing something unimaginable and unprecedented which will leave you feeling devastated and powerless.   Sara Murphy produced a booklet to help those who were bereaved during the pandemic. The following text is an extract from her booklet which we hope you find useful.

The Nature of Grief

Grief is our emotional response to loss. Many emotions, including anger, guilt, sadness, depression, loneliness, hopelessness, and numbness may be present after the death of a loved one. While grief is a universal experience and all of us will experience grief many times over the course of our lives, every grief experience is also unique. We do not grieve in the same way over different losses, and individual survivors grieve the death of one person differently.

At this particularly difficult time, it is important that you give yourself permission to feel the emotions you are feeling, which may change from day to day or even from one moment to the next. There is no “wrong” or “right” way to grieve because your emotions reflect both your special relationship to your loved one and the circumstances of their death.

Traumatic Loss

Losing a loved one in the midst of the pandemic will have been a traumatic experience. If we lose someone suddenly, or if we were not able to be with them while they were dying, our grief responses are complicated by the traumatic nature of the loss. Survivors may feel overwhelmed with thoughts of their loved one’s death. They may experience intense distress in yearning or searching for the deceased due to their sudden separation. The bereaved may also experience emotional distress along with their other grief emotions, including feelings of emptiness, disbelief, and distrust in other people.

If you are experiencing any of these feelings, know that they are normal responses to the abnormal circumstances of your loss and that, with time and support, they will lessen. Talking about these feelings with close family and friends may help you recognise, sort out, and understand your emotional responses to loss and to trauma. And be aware that you may only now be beginning to grieve for your loved one.

Traumatic Loss Triggers

A loved one’s death during the pandemic could have lead to both grief and trauma, which may cause survivors to experience triggers of their loss that can temporarily disrupt them as they begin their mourning process.

A trigger can be anything that provokes distressing memories of the loss – from an image on the news or the sound of a phone ringing, to the sight of a loved one’s clothing or the scent of their perfume. When we are confronted with a traumatic loss trigger, we might feel immediate, high levels of fear and anxiety, like being suddenly on guard, or physical reactions, such as our heart pounding, our palms sweating, or our mouth going dry.

As a survivor, you might be experiencing some of these responses or other kinds of responses to triggers that cause distress. Responses to trauma vary, and everyone’s reaction is different. Even painful reminders of your loss experience are all ways in which the mind and the body are trying to process your loss and integrate it into your life. While your instinct might be to try to avoid potential triggers, you should try not to isolate in your grief. Most people who experience traumatic loss triggers will find that they gradually lessen over a period of days to months. Having said that, many people will have been unable to begin to grieve, and will have put this on hold for many months.

Ambiguous Losses

Grief following a loved one’s death can be complicated during a public health crisis because we are all experiencing non-death losses at the same time. Some may be concrete and easy to identify, such as financial or employment insecurity and lack of social interaction. Other losses might be harder to recognise, like no longer having the comfort of our normal routines or freedom of movement in public spaces.

We may also have experienced the loss of our “assumptive world” – the set of core beliefs that stabilise, ground, and orientate us and make us feel secure in our daily lives. A pandemic, like other forms of traumatic and mass casualty events, can threaten our belief that the world is, or ever will be, a safe and secure place.

Grieving a death while dealing with non-death losses can feel overwhelming for several reasons:

  • Many of the non-death losses you are experiencing may have directly impacted the degree to which you could be with your loved one prior to their death, which might prompt feelings of anger and regret now.
  • The death may make the effects of your non-death losses feel stronger, particularly losses of interaction and movement.
  • You might feel that your grief hasn't been recognised and supported as it would have been if your loved one had died at another time because everyone is currently experiencing non-death losses, or now, in a vaccinated world, appear to be getting on with life.
While you grieve your loved one, try to recognise and validate the other losses you are experiencing as a way of making sense of how these losses impact one another for you personally.

Risk of Disenfranchised Grief

In addition to other complications to grieving the loss of a loved one during the pandemic, survivors are at risk of experiencing disenfranchised grief. Anyone suffering a loss whose grief is not openly acknowledged, socially validated, or publicly observed can experience disenfranchised grief, including survivors in a pandemic. When the number of people who die of a single virus is extremely high, one may feel that their loved one’s death did not receive attention or was only being treated as a statistic.

Your grief responses may include feelings of helplessness and powerlessness if you believe that your individual loss has not been acknowledged, validated, or treated with care. Here are steps to take to reduce these effects:

  • Practice emotional self-care by identifying your losses and validating your feelings about them
  • Continue to ask for support from the friends and family who will respect and listen to your individual grief experience without giving you unsolicited advice
  • Plan memorials and tributes to your loved one, as soon as possible, that will help you feel recognised and acknowledged in your grief

If You Were Separated From Your Loved One at the Time of Their Death

If you were unable to be with your loved one while they were sick or could not be with them when they died, you may feel robbed or cheated of time with them in their end-of-life moments. You may feel angry that the coronavirus pandemic required protocols that kept you from being at their side, and you may feel disoriented in beginning to mourn while wrestling with these circumstances. All of these feelings are justified, and nothing about your experience was deserved.

There are no words possible to erase the pain you may be feeling at not being with your loved one during their death, but it can be helpful to remember that a life is far more than its endpoint. The life of your loved one was made up of millions of moments, including moments of laughter, happiness, and joy, many of which you shared with them. Remembering these shared moments now might help you remind yourself that you carry your whole relationship with your loved one with you as you move forward with your grief.

While dying is essentially a process that each of us does on our own, it is natural to want to be with someone meaningful to us when they are dying. Being present in their final days and hours allows us to prepare for the loss we will experience and also to provide comfort to them. Right now, you may feel upset because they had to die without the benefit of family and friends at their side. That feeling is understandable. Know, though, that they did not die alone. Their death was witnessed and felt by compassionate nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals who sought to surround them with care and comfort. And, importantly, they died while wrapped in the love they felt for you and from you throughout their life.

Supporting Your Health While Grieving

Taking steps that value your physical and emotional health is crucial while working through the early days and weeks of your loss during this pandemic. Some strategies include:
  • Safety – follow the recommendations of experts to slow the spread of the coronavirus and minimise your chance of contracting it
  • Routine – establishing and maintaining a routine to help you take some control over your daily life
  • Nourishment – try to eat healthy, nutrient-rich foods and drink plenty of water
  • Limiting alcohol – abusing alcohol or other substances can endanger your health while also hindering your grieving process
  • Exercise – engaging in physical movement, even a short walk can be helpful to your well-being
  • Sleep – maintaining stable sleep patterns right after a traumatic loss isn’t always possible, but you should try to rest your mind and body even if you are experiencing sleep disturbances
  • Mental health checks – “check in” with yourself and your feelings at least twice a day and more frequently whenever you are feeling particularly overwhelmed by grief
  • Mood changes – traumatic loss can lead to rapid and upsetting mood changes. If you are experiencing mood changes, practice deep breathing and remove yourself from the environment (virtual or physical) in which you are experiencing them if possible.
  • Seek support – whether through a phone call to a trusted friend, a tele-meeting with a grief counsellor, or a video chat with a distanced family member to reminisce about your loved one, it is important that you obtain the support you deserve

Conclusions and Beginnings

Losing a loved one is hard under normal circumstances and experiencing the loss of your loved one during the pandemic has been extraordinarily difficult for many. As you begin your grief journey, I encourage you to reflect on memories with your loved one and the particular gifts they brought to your life. We do not get over grief, we get through it. It is important that we honour our dead and share our grief into the future. Our love for those we have lost will not end. After a death, we move forward into a world that has changed personally and permanently, but we do not leave our loved ones behind. We carry them with us, with the knowledge that our bonds cannot be broken, even by death.

About the Author

Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, is a death educator and certified thanatologist (Association for Death Education and Counselling). Dr. Murphy teaches at the University of Rhode Island and conducts workshops and seminars on death, dying, and bereavement nationwide for professional organisations, schools, and community groups.

Useful helplines and links:

Have a look at this short film on grief produced by the Loss Foundation. It will help you to understand what grief is and make sense of what you might be experiencing.

If you are feeling depressed you might find this short film on depression and advice on managing it helpful. 

See the resources section on this website which has many helpful reads about grief, how to help children and teenagers, reflective material, questions about faith in bereavement, and many other subjects that will support you on your bereavement journey.

You may find the British Psychological Society leaflet about supporting yourself and others following bereavement during the Coronavirus lockdown useful. Find the leaflet HERE