COVID-19 has taken the lives of millions of people around the world — and the grief of those people’s loved ones could be considered a secondary epidemic. Reports estimate that for every person who dies from COVID-19, nine people grieve their loss. Given the pandemic’s current death toll, that means more than five million Americans are currently dealing with grief after a tragic loss.
But grief has spread even further than that. People are grieving all kinds of pandemic-related loss — jobs (and financial security), time with loved ones, opportunities, and “normal” life itself. And the year’s challenges and tragedies aren’t just contributing to grief — the pandemic has obstructed many ways that we cope with grief.
For example, social distancing and pandemic restrictions prevented us from processing grief in traditional ways that involve gathering with our loved ones. They also prevented us from resuming normal routines. And with so many uncertainties still looming, feelings of grief may continue to compound, not resolve.
If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one or grappling with the pandemic’s impact on your life, healthcare professionals want you to know what you’re feeling is normal. But there are steps you can take to cope with, process, and heal grief.
Grief is a natural response to loss — and it can be triggered in many ways. It’s important to not judge yourself or others for how and when grief strikes.
Physician and wellness expert Bradley Nelson says that there’s also no timeline for grief recovery. “Some people process their feelings and are able to resume a regular routine relatively quickly — while for others, grieving is a prolonged journey,” he says.
Grief is rarely straightforward and often confusing, he adds. But in general, people move through it in stages like denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
As you navigate your grieving process, here are some considerations to keep in mind:
Nelson says that denial works to prepare you for the difficult feelings to come; just don’t get stuck in this phase.
Severe depression or thoughts of self-harm are indicators that you should seek immediate professional help.
Feeling overwhelmed is normal, but try not to let your thoughts consume you. When you are feeling overwhelmed, try to focus on your breath or something in your physical environment. Nelson suggests that you try to “observe your thoughts like passing clouds” or to focus on replacement thoughts such as “I’m going to be OK” or “This feeling is normal.”
Allow yourself to fully experience your emotions and not judge or avoid the pain grief can cause.
Your pain may be so intense that it feels like it will never end. It’s OK to give yourself as much time as you need.
There’s another challenge complicating the grieving process today. We’ve spent the last year experiencing stress after stress — such as financial or job insecurity, our kids’ welfare, social seclusion, and of course, bereavement.
But restrictions kept us isolated in our losses. We couldn’t gather with friends and family for support, turn to our routines, or enjoy many of our normal daily pleasures. In trying to cope, we had to find a new normal — and as the world starts to reopen, that is changing yet again.
“The idea of suddenly ‘going back to normal’ is especially challenging,” says Karen Bussen of Farewelling, a company that helps families with end-of-life planning and grief management. “We’re supposed to be grateful and happy — it can all seem just too much.”
As you construct another “new normal” in the upcoming months, she and other experts recommend a few conscious ways to cope with and process your grief:
Research shows that traumatic events often disrupt physical processes like our nervous system function and inflammatory response. It’s common for people experiencing high levels of stress and grief to encounter sleep, stomach, skin, respiratory, and other health problems.
Focusing on self-care can help ease your grief recovery, allowing your body to heal from traumas you’ve faced. Science-backed approaches include:
• Getting at least eight hours of high-quality sleep
• Light movement and exercise within your physical comfort zone
• Mindfulness activities that lower your body’s cortisol — or stress hormone — levels, like meditation, cooking, painting, gardening, or reading
Stressful situations can lead to what’s known as “decision fatigue,” a result of having to make many fast-paced decisions. And this leads to poor decision-making or avoiding decisions altogether. In this state, many people either skip meals or opt for quick fixes like fast food.
Poor or irregular nutrition tends to make us feel even worse, however. It’s important to keep your body strong during this difficult time by:
• Drinking enough water — and avoiding the urge to consume a lot of caffeine, sugary drinks, or alcohol
• Getting enough fruits, vegetables, and protein
• Including omega-3 fatty acids in your diet from sources like nuts, seafood, and plant oils
It’s sometimes not easy to eat well when grieving. Try preparing bulk meals you can portion and freeze to make eating well more manageable. And talk to your doctor about the best ways to meet your nutritional needs. (Learn more about nutrition and mental health.)
Studies show that mourning loss alone can lead to longer-lasting grief and have a greater impact on our mental and physical health. Even if you’re not ready to open up to loved ones about how you’re feeling, there’s evidence that just knowing you have their support might accelerate grief recovery.
Rebuilding social connections — where it feels right — can help you process your pain and release it over time. It also encourages you to focus on the present and look toward a positive future, preserving the memory of your loss in a healthy way.
Recovering from grief can take time — but it’s essential to get professional help if your feelings become too overwhelming. While grief itself is not a mental illness, it can evolve into one if left unaddressed.
Talk to your doctor if your grief is impacting your daily life or you are experiencing symptoms of depression. Or reach out to our team at Carbon Health for resources and guidance. Grief counseling can aid in building healthy coping mechanisms that ease your pain and put you on a path toward recovery. If you are concerned that you might harm yourself, seek out emergency help or find a hotline that will allow you to speak to someone.