Grief in the Time of Coronavirus
I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter recently about grief and loss. How is it different during the time of coronavirus and what does that mean going forward? While we can point out the differences for the former (e.g. lack of saying goodbye, inability to gather for a funeral or memorial service; finding a funeral home that can assist during this pandemic when they are over-run), the answers to the latter will reveal themselves in time. This is a new phenomenon.
We do, however, know a lot about grief and healing and the challenges that situations like this can provide. First, many deaths due to this virus come quickly. A South Korea study found that among those who died, time from diagnosis to death was just 11 days. What do we know about sudden death and its impact on grief?
When death is sudden and unexpected it often carries traumatic reactions as well as normal grief reactions. Disbelief, numbness, and feelings of depersonalization or depression are more likely in those who lose loved ones more suddenly. These traumatic reactions can lead to more difficult grief outcomes and a higher risk for what is termed “complicated grief”—a state in which the grief remains acute despite the passage of long periods of time.
Second, we know that grief and healing take much longer than people expect with sudden death. The longer period of acute grief can leave the grieving person feeling isolated and alienated. Since so much of healing from grief involves connections with others and support, recovery from sudden grief becomes more complicated. Third, we know that funeral and memorial services can bring comfort and support to the grieving person. Without these, there is a risk for an increased sense of being disconnected from others in the world.
These are unique circumstances for those who lose a loved one. Never in our lifetime have so many people lost loved ones in such a short period of time. While traumatic and devastating, this shared experience can also provide an opportunity for support from social groups and taking advantage of online or virtual grief support. This may be one of the great strengths that helps people heal during this pandemic.
Peter A. Lichtenberg
May 14, 2020