Grief and The Unspoken Losses from COVID-19

Grief is universal. However, it’s not often that we, as a global community, get to simultaneously experience it.

The coronavirus’ impact is so extensive that it has not only upended our lives, but it has also forced us to accept regular conversations about death. As I’m writing this, the World Health Organization (2021) has recorded a total of nearly 4.5 million deaths attributed to COVID-19. Now, the Delta variant continues to push even more people into enduring the tragic loss of their loved ones.

But grief – which includes a broad range of thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behavioural changes that are common after a loss or transition (Harris, 2020) – encompasses losses that go beyond death; losses that typically go unrecognized, yet are necessary to be aware of.

When it rains, it pours

“We are all dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew,”

said grief expert David Kessler during a podcast with Brené Brown (2020).

The unique circumstances brought forth by the pandemic have been suggested to increase the prevalence of grief disorders amongst the population (Eisma & Tamminga, 2020). This is because, with such a large-scale emergency event, people commonly experience multiple losses at the same time. This can complicate and prolong the mourning process, as well as delay the individual’s ability to adapt and move on.

Think about it. With COVID-19, we are experiencing the loss of our:

  • Freedom
  • Autonomy
  • Safety and stability
  • Sense of control
  • Physical connections with family and friends
  • Sources of income
  • Rare opportunities to immerse ourselves in meaningful celebrations and rituals – from birthdays and weddings to graduations and funerals.

Additionally, most (if not all) of us have a lingering sense that more loss will come. We came to expect updates on restrictions and lockdowns. We worry about never getting to experience face-to-face classes before we complete school or university, of having to cancel vacation plans, of not having the option to travel back home, and of putting our dreams and goals on hold indefinitely. This uncertainty fills us with an overwhelming sense of anxiety and dread. Without realizing, we may already be mourning these potential future losses, regardless of whether or not they would actually occur.

All of this can be especially challenging to deal with. These losses are not as tangible or concrete, and it is impossible to get closure because there is no clear “end” to the current situation. On top of that, multiple losses could be accompanied with a sense of ambivalence. For example, being stuck at home prevented us from engaging in a lot of activities, but it has also given many the opportunity to explore and develop interests/skills that they previously weren’t able to dedicate their time to. The global scale of the pandemic might have also led us to unknowingly minimize our grief by comparing our experience to that of others (e.g. “I feel isolated and have a hard time finding a job, but there are other people who still have it worse.”).

Both the conflicting emotions and invalidation of what we are going through then contributes to the feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and/or “stuck-ness”. This is part of the reason why our emotional experience of this disease is so exhausting.

So what do I do now?

Understanding grief is the first step to reclaiming and accepting all the facets of our grief response. It encourages us to mourn the losses we have experienced – both big and small – and to process the pain.

Hence, it is important for us to remember that there is no “right way” to grieve, nor is there a “right amount of time” to grieve for. Grief is impossible to fit in a box because all of us mourn differently and for different reasons. Our responses could vary depending on who/what was lost, the nature of our attachment to them, how the loss occurred, our personality styles, social factors, our personal histories of grief and mourning, and whether or not there are concurrent losses and stressors (Worden, 2018).

Grief is also not a linear process because it doesn’t simply “go away”. We will experience great joy, but we can also still experience deep sorrow during moments when we are reminded of who/what was lost. Nevertheless, as time passes, the grief will no longer make up most of our life. Instead, we learn to grow around it (Williams, 2021).

Finally, it is true that grief is ultimately an individual journey. But while it can be really challenging to navigate this unpredictable terrain, know that there are many resources you can access and support persons you can reach out to. You don’t have to walk through it alone.

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