Traumatic Grief in the COVID-19 Era
By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | May 28, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has already altered the way we live, work, learn, and relate to each other. The many types of losses we’ve experienced during this time include financial insecurity, relocation, separation from family and friends, racial trauma, and losses of intangibles such as a sense of normalcy. The virus has also dramatically changed a painful situation as old as time: grieving the loss of a loved one.
As the full impact of the Coronavirus unfolds, millions of people in the U.S. are left grieving, and a sizable number of these bereaved individuals will experience Traumatic Grief.
What is Traumatic Grief?
When death of a loved one comes suddenly, unexpectedly, or is complicated, we describe the mourning process that follows as Traumatic Grief. In life, we all eventually lose someone we love by death with the grief response that follows as a complex and unique experience for each individual. Traumatic grief, however, is different. This type of loss triggers post-trauma survival mechanisms that add to the mourning of the loved one lost. Traumatic loss is characterized by a generalized, and acute fear that the worst is going to happen, persistent and painful feelings of guilt, avoidance of reminders of the loss, including people, places, and events, and prolonged period of acute grief when it is extraordinarily difficult to sooth oneself or be comforted, or an inability or unwillingness to experience positive emotions. Although common for any type of grief, Traumatic Grief is associated with increased difficulty normalizing patterns of sleep and eating, strained social interactions and problems concentrating and focusing on anything other than the loss.
Traumatic grief is often overlooked or minimized and not as well understood. This makes the grieving process feel especially isolating and lonely.
Grieving in the COVID-19 Era
The pandemic has disrupted the way that we say goodbye to our loved ones as well as the way we grieve. Those who have experienced a loss during COVID-19 who have been impacted in this way are more vulnerable to Traumatic Grief reactions. For example, many people were unable to say goodbye to their loved ones because of health and safety protocols in place in hospitals and palliative care facilities. Nurses, doctors, and other caregivers served as intermediaries for family – oftentimes relaying emotional, heart-wrenching farewell messages between loved ones. Phone calls and video visits stand as crude substitutes for healing rituals like a loving touch, holding one’s hand, a laugh, a hug, or a goodbye kiss.
Funerals and other religious and social rituals following the death of a loved one have also been significantly impacted during the pandemic. These are important practices to help the griever honor the departed, to express their emotions, and come together as a community for care and support. Amidst the COVID-19 era, these practices cannot look the same as they once did. As an alternative, funeral homes offer videos or small services for the immediate family that livestream online for extended family and friends who cannot attend in person. In lieu of getting together to toast the deceased or gather in a park, grieving now occurs online through social media and other platforms dedicated to hosting obituaries giving loved ones the chance to share memories and write messages.
The deviations from the typical rituals and practices of coming together following a loss contributes to the lingering unease and sadness that we collectively feel. Being apart from one another can trigger a sense of emptiness and feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Online mourning practices can make us feel even further disconnected. People who grieve in COVID-19 times feel a sense of disconnection, disillusionment, loneliness, and deep regret for not having the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.
How do we heal?
As in any type of grief but especially in Traumatic Grief, there exists no “right” way to mourn for complex losses. Four Tasks of Grieving provides a helpful framework for the mourning process but know that no one way to grieve fits for everyone nor is there a specific timeline for the grieving process. Healing does happen, and eventually you will regain the strength to move forward with newfound purpose and meaning. When dealing with Traumatic Grief, working with a therapist who specializes in trauma therapy may prove beneficial in helping you to come to grips with the painful realities of the death while learning how to adapt to life without your loved one.
Below are suggestions to help you cope with grief in the age of COVID-19:
1. Be kind and patient with yourself.
Grief and traumatic grief are not experiences we can simply “get over,” especially considering the uniqueness of the times and the compounded losses we face today. It isn’t easy, but we can learn How to Cope in a “Get Over and Move On” Society by not pushing ourselves too hard and forcing our recovery too quickly.
2. Give yourself permission to grieve.
Allowing yourself to feel whatever comes up for you with grace and compassion will help to ease your pain. Counterintuitively, The Prescription for Grief is to Grieve. Whatever you are feeling represents a natural part of the healing process and cannot be avoided.
3. Find a way to say goodbye in your own way.
If circumstances disallowed time with loved ones before they passed, it is important to find a way to face the reality of their death. This can include writing a letter, talking to the person out loud (it’s not as strange as it sounds), or find a quiet place, preferably in nature, to reflect and invite a sense of closeness with your loved one.
4. Create your own ritual.
If you were unable to attend a funeral, create a ritual of your own. For example, light a candle and say a prayer, create a photo album or make a compilation of digital memories together, journal about your favorite memories, or talk to someone with whom you are close about the deceased. You might also find music with meaningful lyrics to listen to or sing along.
5. Pay tribute to the person who died.
Think creatively about opportunities to keep your loved one’s memory alive. If you can, procure something personal of theirs like a piece of clothing, a watch, a recipe book, piece of artwork, jewelry, or a book, and prominently display this in your home. If you do not have any items, frame a special photo, quote, or an image that reminds you of them. Other ideas include donating to a worthy organization in your loved one’s name or planting a tree or plant in their honor.
6. Be vulnerable with others.
In many parts of U.S. culture, death and dying are considered taboo subjects and not discussed freely and openly. We need to talk more about death and grieving to build back connectedness and help each other through these painful times. Start by sharing with someone close to you and gradually consider inviting others to the conversation. You will learn quickly that you need not endure a loved one’s death alone.
7. Take good care of yourself!
Now more than ever does grieving require good self-care practices. Besides focusing on eating well, sleeping, and creating movement in your day, try practicing mindfulness and utilize relaxation exercises.
When to get help
Seek support from a Professional San Diego Psychologist who specializes in trauma therapy, grief and loss-related issues. Such support can constitute an essential aspect of your healing process. Your therapist can help you determine whether your grief is Normal or Not? The Distinction between Grief and Depression. Reaching out and asking for help aren’t always easy. Read Taking the First Step: Seeking Therapy Following a Loss to help you break through the barriers and receive focused guidance when you need it most.
We are here to help. Contact us now and take the first step toward regaining a sense of peace and purpose in your life.
Authors note: If you are struggling with how to best support someone who is grieving, read What to say When Words are Not Enough: Comforting Others in Grief. You may also benefit from meeting with a member of our team of talented San Diego Psychologists.