How Grief Is Different During COVID-19

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that people are experiencing increased mental health issues while grieving the death of a loved one due to COVID-19 when compared to deaths before the pandemic or from natural causes.
  • Grief during COVID-19 is compounded by different factors like the amount of constant loss around us and the inability to participate in traditional in-person mourning rituals.
  • Practicing grounding exercises or reaching out to a loved one for support can help in the grieving process.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have found ourselves forced to change our rituals and routines. Social distancing guidelines have made it especially difficult to safely come together to mourn the loss of a loved one, bringing drastic changes to the process of grieving.

While working through grief is already a difficult process, research from Curtin University in Australia found that people grieving a loved one who died of COVID-19 are experiencing heightened psychological symptoms when compared to those grieving individuals who died before the pandemic or of natural causes. The symptoms included.

  • Separation distress
  • Dysfunctional grief
  • Post-traumatic stress

The study collected online survey data from adults in the United States in early November 2020. It was published online in January in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

The researchers wrote that the findings of this study show the need for timely support and care to help people grieving those who've died due to COVID-19. "Efficacious and cost-effective strategies to identify, limit, and treat functional impairment experienced by people bereaved by COVID-19 are urgently needed," they wrote.

How Grief Is Different During COVID-19

In the U.S., over 500,000 people have died from complications from COVID-19. Kelly Rabenstein-Donohoe, PsyD, a licensed psychologist, tells Verywell that grief is compounded during the pandemic due to the additional personal losses people are experiencing, as well as constantly hearing about the losses of others.

"There has been a pretty steady stream of terrible news that we find it difficult to process," she says. "When we hear a [sad] story, it impacts us internally as though it was happening to our own life."

People experiencing grief during COVID-19 may be experiencing complicated grief, which is a prolonged period of grief that does not go away after a few months. Symptoms of complicated grief include:

  • Focus on little else but your loved one's death
  • Have trouble carrying out normal routines
  • Experience depression, deep sadness, guilt, or self-blame

Why Grief Affects How We Function

Executive functioning helps us pay attention, organize, and remember details. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that complicated grief can impact a person's cognitive abilities, including their executive function.

The January study highlights the need to properly address grief to stop it from impairing people's abilities to manage their everyday life. "Attention to identifying and treating functional impairment may be important in facilitating grieving persons’ full participation in social and economic life during and after the pandemic," the researchers wrote.

"Grief does impact your ability to use your frontal cortex, which is your executive functioning, because of the intense rush of cortisol that comes in that way," Rabenstein-Donohoe says. "[Cortisol] tells us everything is bigger than it is and that's to keep us surviving right, but we've been in survival mode for a year."

In order to help manage that executive function, Rabenstein-Donohoe recommends that people practice mindfulness. "When we hear 'mindfulness,' we think breathing techniques or sitting quietly sometimes that actually exacerbates the anxiety feelings or the intensity of the moment," she says. "It often helps to do grounding exercises. So, things that are outside of yourself, [like] spending no more than 30 seconds or a minute telling yourself, 'This is the counter. I'm touching the counter.'"

What This Means For You

If you find yourself grieving losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the healing process may feel more difficult now than it has in the past. If you feel overwhelmed, try grounding exercises, journaling about your experience, or reaching out to a friend or loved one to support you in your grieving.

Connecting With Community Is Crucial

While COVID-19 has disrupted in-person mourning rituals, Elizabeth Loran, PhD, assistant professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, encourages her patients to continue to connect with others while in mourning.

"The advice is still the same in terms of seeking out your community and seeking out connection with others and people to talk to and gain support from," Loran tells Verywell. Loran now brainstorms with her patients about ways that they can still connect with loved ones virtually.

"Never before in my career has it been hard to have a funeral, has it been hard to sit Shiva, has it been difficult to go see family after a loss," she says. Loran asks her patients questions like, "Is there a childhood friend you could call who you could talk about memories with?" to help them find a way to work through their grief with the support of others.

The Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University gives the following suggestions for staying connected while working through and living with grief.

  • Seek support from family, friends, mentors, spiritual leaders, or religious leaders
  • Be flexible and creative in accessing support via phone, email, text messaging, and video calls
  • Talk about your experiences and feelings to loved ones and friends, if you find it helpful
  • Write about your experiences and share them with others through social media and other outlets

Avoiding the Self-Blame Game

Research from before the COVID-19 pandemic has previously shown that people often blame themselves or feel guilty when a loved one passes away. Self-blame and guilt are coping mechanisms that some people use when processing grief, but typically only make the healing process more challenging.

Those who lost a loved one to COVID-19 may also be experiencing survivor's guilt—the remorse of surviving when others did not—especially if they survived the virus while others didn't.

Loran recommends that people avoid making "what if" statements surrounding checking in or helping the now-deceased person. "You can actually lead to self-blame and shame around what is essentially an uncontrolled loss, and it can make that loss harder," she says. "There's no right way to grieve, and [deaths aren't] something that people can control."

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Breen L, Lee S, Neimeyer R. Psychological risk factors of functional impairment after COVID-19 deathsJ Pain Symptom Manage. doi:10.1016/j.jpainsymman.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker.

  3. Hall C, Reynolds C, Butters M, et al. Cognitive functioning in complicated griefJ Psychiatr Res. 58:20-25. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2014.07.002

  4. The Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University. Managing Stress: Tips for Coping with the Stress of COVID-19.

  5. Stroebe M, Stroebe W, van de Schoot R, Schut H, Abakoumkin G, Li J. Guilt in bereavement: The role of self-blame and regret in coping with lossPLoS One. 9(5):e96606. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096606

By Julia Métraux
Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer specializing in disability.