COVID-19 Has Changed How We Mourn

By: John Donovan  | 

mourning coronavirus
(From left) U.S. President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, hold a moment of silence and candlelight ceremony in honor of a grim milestone — 500,000 American deaths from coronavirus — Feb. 22, 2021. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

At some point in our lives — at multiple points — we all grieve. No matter how much we try to avoid losing the people we love, we can't avoid all of life's pain. And so we grieve. In ways personal and public, in ways silent and loud.

These days, though, grieving has taken on a new form. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, we can't yet safely soothe those who have lost loved ones with a hug or an arm around a shoulder. We can't yet — for fear of spreading the virus — gather safely to say goodbye. We can't be there for others, and others can't be there for us, and experts say being there is one of the most important parts of the grieving process.

It's been devastating. But, somehow, through it all, we've persevered.

"I think that I would say we're probably, on average, we're probably doing OK," says Katherine Shear, a professor of psychiatry in the Columbia School of Social Work and the founding director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University. "One of the things we're doing is acknowledging it, which is huge. Often, grief is something that we kind of half-acknowledge."

As a nation, Shear says, it took the U.S. some time to face up to the very real impact the pandemic is having. She points to memorials that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris held in Washington, D.C. — initially as president- and vice president-elect and later as president and vice president — as important, if somewhat belated, first steps.

"That kind of thing, we're not doing very well with, and we need to do better, because it's very helpful," she said. "And of course we're not doing well with the disparity issues, either. We're subjecting some of our most vulnerable populations to grief as well as death."

But the spotlight on grief, as the pandemic has worn on, has intensified. And that's good.

"There's been a massive increase in the interest in understanding grief and helping the public understand it and deal with it," Shear says. "In that way, I think we're doing very, very well. Finally, we are paying attention to something that is always important in our lives. People are so much more aware and respectful of grief than they were a year ago."

mourning coronavirus
Claire Callender (left holding casket), who is a funeral director and co-founder of The Green Funeral Company, is helped by her partner, Ru Callender, carry the casket of her mother, Rosemary Phillips, to her final resting place in April 2020 in Totnes, United Kingdom. Phillips died of natural causes at 84. Claire never intended to arrange her own mother's funeral, but chose to because of the restrictions on funerals.
Lynsey Addario/Getty Images

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Grieving in the Pandemic

The sheer amount of grief that has accompanied the pandemic — around 543,000 people have died in America alone, and close to 3 million worldwide — is staggering in itself. Coupled with the restrictions put on us in grieving, the damage to the living is compounded.

Those normal rituals of grieving — things like funerals and wakes, family meals, family and friends gathering — are extremely important. "They help you feel like you belong. Everyone is joining you. It's something familiar," Shear says. "It sort of brings you into the living world. It acknowledges things have changed for you in a big way. There are so many benefits to those rituals."

Without them, especially early in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, people felt lost. They could not grieve properly.

"We have to simultaneously accept the death and honor the person who died, and also move forward in our own lives. That's so hard to do when you're all alone and so restricted in your capacity to move around," Shear says.

"There is so much because of the pandemic that is not possible," Brielle P. Rassler, a doctoral psychology intern at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, told Penn Medicine News last summer. "Yes, it is really devastating that we can't give each other hugs in person, but I tell people to try not to focus so much on what's not possible, focus on what is possible."

As the pandemic has stretched into a second year, people have found alternative ways to grieve. Rassler led a Zoom funeral attended by friends and family members from at least five different states. Support groups have flourished online. Online church services have helped many. Phone calls between and among loved ones have been used with great effectiveness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that family and friends can honor those lost by reciting a poem or a religious verse within their own households. They can be remembered by launching blogs or memory books online, with friends and families contributing.

"I think many people are being quite creative in trying to do, contextually, the usual rituals. And I do think that's helpful," Shear says. "It still is not quite the same. So it's a challenge."

mourning coronavirus
A few members of the Amaya family listen as other family and friends speak via Zoom during a virtual wake for German Amaya in August 2020 in Miami, Florida. Amaya died from the coronavirus.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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Accepting Grief, Moving Forward

Shear's Center for Complicated Grief focuses on several steps in the road toward healing:

  • Honor your loved one and yourself; discover your own interests and values.
  • Ease emotional pain; open yourself to emotions — both painful and pleasant ones; trust that you can deal with emotional pain; it doesn't control you.
  • Accept grief and let it find a place in your life.
  • Learn to live with the reminders of your loss.
  • Integrate memories of your loved one; let them enrich your life, and help you learn and grow.
  • Narrate stories of the death for yourself; share them with others.
  • Gather others around you; connect with your community, let people in and let them support you.

Not all that has been possible during the pandemic. But with vaccines becoming more widely available, and with virus cases and daily death tolls dropping, the ability to fully grieve may not be too far off.

"One of the basic premises that I work with is that we all have a natural adaptive capacity, specifically for adapting to loss. If you think about it, loss is ubiquitous in human experience," Shear says. "If we couldn't do that, if we couldn't adapt, we couldn't have a human race, basically, because when we're grieving intensely, it's very, very debilitating.

"When things open up, people will have the opportunity to join with friends and family to honor the person who died. Maybe it won't be a funeral, per se, but we can have a memorial, and that's something we often do later anyway. We'll be able to more easily visit the cemetery and those things. We'll be able to reengage with people."

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