Mourning Alone: Understanding Grief in the Time of COVID-19

Sad young woman with face protective mask looking through the window at home

While the true depth of COVID-19’s devastation won’t be fully realized for decades, it has taken its toll—and not just in deaths. In the U.S., a COVID-related death will touch the lives of nine people, on average, from immediate and extended family members to dear friends, close co-workers, and neighbors.

Experts estimate that the pandemic’s aftermath will, in many ways, mirror that of a large-scale disaster (like a hurricane or terrorist attack). This especially includes the long-term psychological consequences that come with it.

However, there’s one unique caveat: Because of now-common safety measures—like quarantining from family and friends and the inability to visit loved ones in hospitals—many people who’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19 are mourning alone.

Here’s a guide to understanding grief during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grieving at a distance

A comforting hug. Sharing fond memories over a meal. Attending a wake or funeral. These are American traditions; these are tangible ways in which we show support to a bereaved family after a death. In many cases, social distancing has made these traditions near-impossible, robbing loved ones of their normal support structures.

In situations where social distancing practices were in place prior to a death (like in a hospital or healthcare facility), additional factors can complicate the grieving process. The physical absence of a loved one, compounded with the uncertainty of their condition, can leave family members in a state of unresolved mourning known as ambiguous loss.

Conversely, the pandemic’s overwhelming scope may push mourners to withdraw, hiding their pain from others; this is an experience known as disenfranchised grief. They may feel their loss cannot be properly or publicly mourned, and therefore retreat to grieve alone.

Learn more about understanding grief during COVID-19. Enroll in our 2-hour CE course: COVID-19: Loss, Grief and Bereavement.

An unseen toll

Like an earthquake’s aftershock, the pandemic has impacted both the physical and mental health of millions—and the effects will be broad and long-lasting. The American Psychiatric Association has even proposed a new formal diagnosis to describe this kind of lingering grief: Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD).

Outside of the healthcare facility, the pandemic brings with it additional stressors. These can include financial worries, shame, fear, distrust, loneliness, and a lack of control that can spur unexpected actions (like a panicked trip to the grocery for large quantities of toilet paper).

Additionally, those who have successfully avoided the virus may experience survivor’s guilt. Since the pandemic has no set expiration date, a sense of uncertainty looms over every decision.

Creative coping

In a time where physical presence or contact is restricted, virtual connection has never been more critical. Healthcare providers and mental health counselors have started exploring new, creative ways to facilitate connections for their patients, providing the social support structure so desperately needed by families dealing with COVID-19.

Below are some additional tips that may help clients and patients navigate the pandemic’s effects:

  • To address feelings of ambiguous loss caused by social distancing or unresolved grief, encourage clients to stay connected with family members via video conferencing tools (like Zoom or Skype).
  • Virtual memory books, audio recordings, and social media groups also provide creative spaces for people to connect, share, remember, and grieve in a community.
  • Uncertainty is a powerful stressor. A comprehensive end-of-life plan is a good way to mitigate some of that uncertainty, including written directives like a Power of Attorney or Living Will.
  • The mental health consequences of COVID-19 will continue even after the pandemic has abated. Be aware of the signs of Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD), including: intense grief for more than a year after a loss, impaired functioning, disruption in identity, disbelief, avoidance, inability to move on, numbness, a loss of meaning, and loneliness.
  • If you haven’t already, consider offering telehealth sessions as a safe and socially distanced means of connecting with your clients or patients.

This article is based on the Nursing 2-hour CE course, COVID-19: Loss, Grief and Bereavement, by Barbara Rubel, BS, MA, BCETS, DAAETS. 

For more information on COVID-19 and its impact on mental health and the healthcare professions, we recommend the following free webinar courses: Helping Patients and Their Families Cope with COVID-19 and Its Lasting Effects and COVID-19: Loss, Grief and Bereavement: Helping Families Cope. Simply add the course and enter code in the dropdown banner at checkout.

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