Grieving a sudden loss from COVID-19 is uniquely challenging.
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the world in so many ways. People have lost jobs or haven’t been able to see extended family members. They’ve had to cancel trips and big events, including long-planned weddings and retirement parties. Worst of all, thousands of families have had to cope with the loss of a loved one from COVID-19.
Losing a loved one is never easy. However, there is something uniquely difficult and traumatic about death from COVID-19. This can make it challenging to cope with the loss in healthy ways. Despite this challenge, going through the grieving process after a COVID-19 loss is crucial.
Why COVID-19 Loss Is So Devastating
One of the reasons losing someone to COVID-19 is so difficult is because it can take the lives of people who are otherwise healthy. Their passing may be sudden and unexpected. In some cases, people learned their COVID-19 diagnosis one day, and died just a few days later. This sudden loss is always painful for the surviving loved ones.
Then, there’s the fact that social distancing means many people have had to die alone without their family members present. “This is difficult because we want to be with our loved ones when they are critically ill and dying,” says Sherry Cormier, PhD, psychologist and author of Sweet Sorry: Finding Enduring Wholeness After Loss and Grief.
“We can feel guilty or resentful that this was not possible. We also may feel as if we were deprived of an opportunity to say goodbye,” says Dr. Cormier. To make it worse, it has been difficult for some families to have in-person or even virtual funeral services for their loved one.
The Importance of Grieving
Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things that humans experience. Everyone will handle it a little differently, and in their own ways. Some of these methods are healthy ways to cope, but some of these coping mechanisms can actually be harmful.
“What is most important is to do the work of grieving—to acknowledge the feelings of sadness and sorrow [and] recognize what you’ve lost,” says Dr. Cormier. This includes recognizing “what has died in you as a result of the loss.”
It’s tempting to shun the uncomfortable emotional work that comes with healthy grieving. Unfortunately, people who skip or procrastinate this step are more likely to turn to harmful coping mechanisms. Most notably, this can include substance use (which can reach dangerous levels and affect long-term health). Learn more signs of unhealthy coping here.
“Grief associated with a deep loss like losing someone to COVID-19 stays with us,” says Dr. Cormier. “Healthy coping helps us learn how to integrate grief into our lives so we are not consumed by it or numbed out, as if frozen in time.”
How to Cope with Loss of a Loved One from COVID-19
How you grieve during a pandemic may look different than how you would cope in a “normal” world. The important thing is to find ways to cope, which may include:
1. Talking to a trusted friend or therapist
“An effective way of healing from grief is to connect with others, as grieving is an isolating task,” says Dr. Cormier. “In pandemic times, this is more challenging because of physical distancing.”
These days, many mental health professionals are available via telehealth. You may also find online grief support groups. Similarly, you can talk with friends on the phone, through virtual chats, or in a socially distanced setting outside. You might find it difficult to reach out, so consider asking a trusted friend to check in on you regularly. This can help you stay connected, even when you feel like keeping to yourself.
2. Finding time to grieve
You may need some time to yourself, and that’s okay. Talk with your employer about taking additional time off. It can be helpful to have some alone time—just don’t veer into withdrawal and isolation. (Learn the difference between alone time and isolation here.)
3. Finding a way to honor your loved one
This could look several ways, such as:
- Have a virtual memorial ceremony where friends and family take turns sharing stories, poems, or prayers
- Design a photo album or scrapbook to honor them or your relationship
- Create a webpage or blog post and ask friends and family to post letters to their loved one or share their favorite stories
- Do something artistic inspired by them, like writing a song or painting a picture
Talking to a therapist can help you find other healthy ways to cope with the loss of a loved one from COVID-19. Healthy coping doesn’t mean you avoid negative emotions—it just means you’ve learned how to accept the loss, process it, and weave it into your story.