Why You Might Feel Numb to Pandemic News

pandemic grief v2

Verywell Health / Gerardo Alexis Dos Diaz

Key Takeaways

  • As society reopens, people might process grief and trauma from the pandemic very differently.
  • Desensitization or numbness can happen when people have not had the time to process trauma properly.
  • Social isolation during the pandemic has emphasized the importance of maintaining face-to-face connections with loved ones.

As the United States reaches the devastating benchmark of 1 million deaths from COVID-19, some feel the weight of this loss, while others remain desensitized to news related to the pandemic.

Although COVID-19 deaths are declining, mental health concerns might be on the rise.

Lori Gottlieb, MFT, a psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author of “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone,” told Verywell that feeling detached is normal when people have not had the time or energy to sit with and process their grief.

Gottlieb said desensitization might be better described as feeling “numb,” which is not the absence of feeling or sensitivity but rather an overload of emotion. “That’s a normal response to having a lot of trauma around you and not being able to get a break from it,” she said.

During the pandemic, people have had very few breaks from trauma, Gottlieb added. The challenges of taking care of one’s personal health and family, paired with reduced chances for face-to-face connection, have impaired some people’s ability to heal and feel.

Or, some people might be feeling overwhelmed for the first time as society reopens. “It’s because you never let yourself go through that grieving process when it was happening,” Gottlieb said.

Fewer Outlets for Pandemic Grief

Gottlieb lost her father during the early days of the pandemic. He did not die of COVID-19, but the virus nonetheless interfered with her ability to care for him in his final days. She said her last words to him over the phone rather than by his side. After his passing, she said a lack of face-to-face interactions with friends and family impacted her grieving process.

“It was so hard to lose my father—I was very, very close with my father—it was even harder when we could not have a proper funeral for him,” Gottlieb said. “We couldn’t bring together all of the people who loved him, and we couldn’t have people support us.”

Had her father died at other times, Gottlieb’s family would have held a Shiva for her father, the traditional Jewish grieving period where people bring family food, stories, and companionship. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, they were unable to hold a Shiva for him.

“There is an added layer when you can’t go through the rituals that help you process your grief,” Gottlieb said. “So many people experienced that during COVID.”

Since then, she has been able to meet with loved ones to honor her father, which has been “so healing and so important,” she said. “People need to remember that connection is integral to their emotional health.”

'Return to Normal' May Intensify Grief

Katherine Suberlak, vice president of clinical services at Oak Street Health, told Verywell that fear, loss, isolation, and uncertainties have all contributed to high rates of grief among her patients. Oak Street serves Medicare-eligible adults, many of whom are vulnerable to COVID-19.

Physicians at Oak Street have noted recent increases in the intensity and duration of grief among the patients based on behavioral health screenings and physical health evaluations, according to Suberlak.

“Without the ability to process grief in ways that we would expect as a culture, it can expand past that time period, and then can turn into lower functioning for the individuals,” she said.

About 40% of Oak Street patients are experiencing some form of depression, Suberlak added, which is much higher than the estimates for the general adult population in the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

“Unique within the pandemic experience has been not just grief and loss around the actual loss and death of a loved one, but a loss of normalcy,” Suberlak said.

She added that mixed messaging from health authorities contributes to feelings of confusion about what is normal and safe. Oak Street closed some of its community spaces early in the pandemic and more recently reopened these when some restrictions were lifted. Still, some people have refrained from gathering in the community spaces since reopening, Suberlak said.

“As risks continue to ebb and flow, it can be draining on patients,” Suberlak said of changing guidelines. “Emotions or behaviors are amplified and that can have a ripple effect on feelings of disempowerment or feelings of abandonment, even if it’s not actually their personal experience.”

How Can We Move Forward?

Gottlieb said that talking about experiences with grief, especially in person, can help process traumatic experiences. Such coping skills are not new, she added, but the pandemic has emphasized their importance.

Face-to-face connections can be more supportive than talking over Zoom, she added. Virtual communications can lead to mental exhaustion as people have to try harder to decipher facial expressions and delayed reactions.

Once we feel safer in their environment, Gottlieb said, we should remember the importance of "actually being with someone." Maintaining meaningful connections may also have long-term benefits, such as helping to buffer the impact of the pandemic on future generations, she added. By continuing to talk about the pandemic when and if it is over, people can feel informed and feel safe to ask questions.

She encourages people to lean into their support network and make an effort to gather with loved ones in person if it is safe to do so. Writing these experiences down can also be beneficial, she said.

“The way that you end the generational trauma is by actually bringing it to light,” Gottlieb said.

What This Means For You

People may not be able to fully heal from COVID-19 induced trauma without face-to-face social interactions and time to talk about their emotions. If safe to do so, experts recommend that people prioritize in-person social connections to aid in their emotional healing.

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.

2 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. Stevens HR, Oh YJ, Taylor LD. Desensitization to fear-inducing COVID-19 health news on Twitter: observational studyJMIR Infodemiology. 2021;1(1):e26876. doi:10.2196/26876

  2. Wiederhold BK. Connecting through technology during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic: avoiding “zoom fatigue.” Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2020;23(7):437-438. doi:10.1089/cyber.2020.29188.bkw

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.