Throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been on a rollercoaster.
For many of us, the experience has felt a little like this: We buckle in and head down the track, with absolutely no idea of what curves and drops are ahead. As we climb up hills, we question what’s on the other side. As we hit a peak and go over, we question when each drop will end as our stomach jumps into our throat. As we speed down stretches on what we think are straight paths, the turns come out of nowhere and jolt us. And the overwhelming feeling of the experience can make it seem like we are completely disoriented and lost.
I will also admit – being on this particular rollercoaster has personally involved the screams, the stomach drops, and the frantic hopes that it’ll all end sooner rather than later.
In thinking about how all-consuming this COVID rollercoaster ride has been, it feels very similar to how I define grief: it is the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual experience we have after a loss. Every day during the COVID-19 pandemic our global community has witnessed losses on a huge scale and we are feeling the effects in all parts of our being. Without certainty. Without clarity. And with lots (and lots) of sharp turns.
To date, there have been 1.69M recorded deaths due to the coronavirus and 76.4M cases of the coronavirus. In addition to the hard numbers, there are many layers of complexity that come along with the deaths and losses we’ve suffered during this pandemic. One of the most challenging impacts we’re facing in this moment is the tidal wave of grief washing over our communities. The sorrow, confusion, and an uncertain future are all normal experiences associated with grief. But these experiences of disorientation have been heightened by the isolation required during a pandemic.
So, as we approach the 1-year anniversary of the first wave of global lockdowns, we are providing insights from death, grief, and health professionals to help readers feel seen and heard in this difficult time – even if just through a computer screen.
Though we are nowhere near the end of this rollercoaster ride yet, we intend to not only provide practical information and resources about the realities of grief in this pandemic, we’ve also provided tactics for how we can practice connection, healing, and community care through the remaining twists and turns.
Navigating grief during the COVID-19 pandemic
What’s different about grief during the COVID-19 pandemic?
There’s no doubt about it: the grief we’ve been experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the coronavirus is unique. Here are a few reasons why what we’re experience feels disorienting, overwhelming, and new:
We are grieving the death of people within and outside of our communities.
People close to us.
Research shows that at least nine close family members are affected by the death of each person killed by the coronavirus.
As individuals, many have experienced the unexpected and sudden loss of friends and family, and with that loss comes a ripple of grief into those people’s extended networks. At the time when the United States had lost approximately 215,000 lives, it was estimated that more than 2,000,000 people were grieving as a result. And research shows that at least nine close family members are affected by the death of each person killed by the coronavirus.
People who are in our wider communities.
We are also witnessing the grief of people who are not in our immediate families, but who are within our communities and nations. We are witnessing their families and friends grieve publicly in our neighborhoods and hospitals. We are surrounded by memorial sites and vigils, especially as we approach the first anniversary of the first COVID related deaths. And we are reminded by the media of the global and national death tolls that are outside of what we can see on a daily basis.
It’s also important to note that many people are grieving deaths unrelated to the coronavirus – deaths related to all kinds of illnesses, injustices, and experiences like suicide and murder; deaths that happened before and during the coronavirus.
We are grieving more than death.
Not only have we lost physical humans from our communities. We’ve lost our daily, annual, and seasonal routines or milestones – including holiday traditions, office interactions, schooling, and what was once a tiny errand like shopping or riding transit. We’ve lost physical contact and both intimate and casual touch. We’ve lost traditional methods for socializing and spaces where we socialize – including institutional small businesses that were community hubs, offices, and workplaces, or personal homes. We’ve lost jobs, employees, and businesses – accompanied by the loss of career progress, dreams, and finances. We’ve lost the opportunity to connect with people at the exciting and challenging times – including graduations, bringing new life into the world, or deaths.
We are grieving what’s to come.
“Not only is there grief for all of those losses, but there’s anticipatory grief as well. The fear of losing more. The uncertainty of when and how it will end,” said Sara Deren, Founder and Chief Experience Officer of Experience Camps, a national network of summer camps for children and teens. Anticipatory grief has shown up for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic as anxiety, stress, and worry about the loss of more people in their networks, more job or economic instability and related losses, and a continued lack of physical connection and support.
There’s been little or no relief and the losses are exponential.
Over the course of the first year of the pandemic, globally there have been over 1,600,000 deaths while we navigate the restrictions of a pandemic, a civil rights movement, political turbulence, economic downfall, and environmental disasters. Major, sweeping, consistent relief has yet to come. Deren points out that “a healthy adaptation to loss requires movement between the pain of grief and the joy of life. The times we are in make it that much harder to establish that movement and balance.”
It’s just so big, so catastrophic,” says Katherine Evering-Rowe, licensed therapist and member of The COVID Grief Network’s support and training team. “So another unique aspect is the desensitization because our communities are less available to really feel the impact of individual loss, individual stories, lives, and deaths. They become drops in the proverbial ocean of coronavirus death, often leaving folks who are grieving feel especially alone in the intensity of their experience.”
We are talking about grief and death on a daily basis.
We are having daily conversations and consuming media about death, dying, health, grief, and trauma in a way that many people have not had to before. Death and grief are front-of-mind, all the time forcing us to face our relationship with mortality, define what death and grief look like for us, and have conversations in spaces that we’re not used to having them. In some ways, this is overwhelming, but in other ways, it is a positive shift.
“All of a sudden, everyone is talking about grief. They have become more aware of the fundamentals of grief. That everyone experiences it differently. That you can’t compare yours to someone else’s. That it comes in waves and that there is no finish line. I’ve also seen a lot more openness to end of life planning,” says Deren.
Our mourning is happening in new spaces (or not at all).
Grief can be isolating in many ways, but this pandemic has made it widely isolating both physically and socially and on a new level. People are unable to be with loved ones when they die, leaving grief and mourning rituals unresolved.
As written in TalkDeath’s article about funerals and rituals during the COVID-19 pandemic, “We often turn to rituals during bereavement, including religious observances, public funerals, wakes, viewings or shivas, all of which are now being drastically changed, canceled or postponed.”
“Those absences, in combination with a national discourse that often downplays the seriousness or even existence of the COVID-19 pandemic, has made it especially difficult for many people to truly begin to process their losses,” says Evering-Rowe.
It’s impacting people of all ages.
“Most children will tell you after a parent or sibling dies that they feel like nobody in the whole world understands what they’re going through,” says Deren. “COVID has exacerbated that isolation by physically distancing them from their peers, along with the emotional distancing of their grief.”
83% of parents reported that they have seen their child using coping skills learned from their grief experience to help them navigate the pandemic.
But there is some good news according to Deren: “On the other hand, grieving kids are somewhat better equipped to deal with all of the uncertainty and fear. In a recent pulse survey of nearly 200 parents and kids, 83% of parents reported that they have seen their child using coping skills learned from their grief experience to help them navigate the pandemic – and our survey of kids shows they agree. In fact, 62% of kids we surveyed said they have even used those skills to support others during COVID-19. New York Life found that 68% of adults felt that experiencing loss as a child made them better prepared to handle other adverse circumstances in their life.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and grief are disproportionately impacting People of Color.
In the midst of the pandemic, we have experienced a heightened awareness of the horrific health-related experiences that People of Color have to endure, particularly in the United States. And the last year has made it crystal clear that the coronavirus is disproportionately impacting and killing People of Color. This is due to many factors, including the long-held traumatic experiences of POC.
“The sheer stress of being born into a racist society, and the resulting psychological, emotional and physical stresses, will make the body more susceptible to illness like the coronavirus,” End-of-Life Doula Oceana Sawyer said to The Los Angeles Times.
According to the CDC, Black, African-American, Hispanic, and Latinx people are 2.8x more likely to die from the coronavirus; American-Indian and Alaska-Native people are 2.6x more likely to die from the coronavirus; and Asian people are 1.1x more likely to die from the coronavirus. This directly relates to the grieving experience of POC communities. For example, impacts of grief are also felt specifically by Women of Color as they deal with caregiving, the workplace, and as they navigate activism and grief in the pandemic.
Caring for ourselves and community during the COVID-19 pandemic
As we continue to ride this rollercoaster, it’s important to stay informed about these many factors that make it uniquely challenging. Understanding not only what we’re going through but how to get through it will help all of us stay safe. So check back for our follow-up article, which will provide tips on how to care for yourself and your community while navigating the pandemic, plus a comprehensive list of grief and end-of-life resources.