COVID-19 and Grief:
The Lost Parts of Ourselves
Grief is natural but the COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives and created a cascade of losses, from our sense of safety to financial insecurity. Even though we may not have been affected directly by a coronavirus death, we all lost something. Fatigue and vague anxiety may be grief in disguise. Learn to recognize grief and cope with what COVID-19 has done to our lives. Includes information about the added heartache of pet loss during the pandemic and changes in health care for your pets. Use your back arrow to return here.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Ernest Hemingway
Updated on December 6, 2022
Over the last three years, COVID-19 has taken lives and changed us forever. Its effects will always be with us.
Some of what you read below is last year's news, but there is still much about this coronavirus that we do not know, especially the lasting effects of long COVID. I will continue to make updates here.
History informs us that people, not science, decide when a pandemic is over, but SARS-CoV-2 continues to kill hundreds each day and remains damaging for many who contract the virus.
For now, I am leaving "COVID-19 and Grief" on the site as a record of what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary times.
On this page:
We All Lost Something
The COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives in big ways and small. To date*, 6,642,848 people worldwide have died of COVID-19. The CDC data tracker count is 1,077,303 deaths in the U.S. alone. Johns Hopkins cites as many as 1,081,638 COVID-19 deaths in the United States.**
Despite recent job growth, food, housing and employment hardships are still widespread. There is a profound global grief, whether for the death of a loved one or a loss of the way things were.
COVID-19 has become the third leading cause of death in the U.S. This means it is also a leading cause of heartache. An estimated seven-in-ten U.S. adults (72%) know someone who has been hospitalized or died from COVID-19.
At least nine people are bereaved by every life lost to the coronavirus, yet there has been a delayed grief for mourners. We were unable to be present for the death of a loved one, visitation was limited or funeral services were on video.
Three years later, we are still surrounded by reminders of COVID-19 related death in the news and this death is placed in a historic backdrop. Personal loss is overshadowed because death has become a statistic.
In a short period of time, we lost our sense of certainty. From the ways we relaxed, worked, shopped, traveled and worshiped to financial uncertainty and how we mourned our dead, every aspect of our lives was invaded by COVID-19.
Personal events, public activities, workplaces, arts/leisure, sports, school, proms and graduations, childcare, eldercare, healthcare, veterinary care, parenting—you name it, everything changed.
We all had activities that enriched our lives and brought us joy. And then they were gone.
What parts of yourself did you lose?
*Visit Johns Hopkins for the latest counts with daily updates.
*The CDC data tracker is updated once a week on Thursdays by 8 PM ET.
**The number of deaths from COVID-19 is staggering but likely represents a massive under-reporting.
The Titanic Syndrome: Hanging On to Normal
Are you, or someone you know, ignoring the pandemic and going about life like everything is normal? If so, you are not alone.
I am SO over this! How many times have you uttered these words? We are tired of the changes COVID-19 has brought to our lives. Life changed quickly for us. As we lost our sense of safety and security, many of us found ourselves in a state of confusion. How could this be happening?
The normalcy bias is a mental state people enter when facing danger or disaster. People believe that since it has never happened before it will never happen, so they do not know how to respond when the threat does occur. We disbelieve or minimize warnings. We postpone acting on the threat because we underestimate the effects the danger or disaster will have on our lives.
The normalcy bias has other names: frozen panic, analysis paralysis, denial, or the ostrich effect. Ignorance is bliss. It causes people to not prepare for disasters, pandemics and war. Almost 70% of us display the normalcy bias during a disaster. (Psychology Today)
One of the most glaring examples of the normalcy bias in history is the sinking of the Titanic. This boat can’t sink! The crew did not prepare well, and passengers refused to evacuate because they underestimated the danger.
Choose any disaster over the last century from the sinking of the Titanic to the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001. On 9/11, many workers returned to their offices after the explosions to turn off computers or lights and this delay in leaving the buildings cost lives. The signs of danger were there for those who could read them and consider the possibilities.
How can this happen? It takes 8 – 10 seconds for our brains to process new information. Stress slows the way the brain responds to new information. When the brain cannot find an acceptable solution, it falls back to a familiar solution that may not be correct or helpful. In computer terms, our human “default position” is anything that feels comfortable or familiar to us—our personal normal.
We are wired to have a hard time planning for and reacting to disasters that have yet to occur. We do not take precautions because everything is fine. This leads us to underestimate the odds of a worst-case scenario and to minimize the potential effects it could have on our lives.
How can we grieve our COVID-19 losses when we do not recognize that they exist? Instead, we have vague feelings of anxiety, physical complaints and suffer without being able to put it into words.
The opposite of the normalcy bias is overreaction, or worst-case scenario bias: As our negative thoughts expand, any deviation from normal signals impending disaster. Someone in the same room coughs, so, of course, you are going to contract COVID-19, end up on a ventilator and die. This worst-case scenario thinking, or negativity bias, partially explains panic buying and hoarding toilet paper or cleaning supplies when we were first told to stay home.
Why Am I So Tired?
Grief is a natural part of life because everyone dies. Most of us think of grief as the sadness we feel when a loved one or pet dies, but any loss, such as divorce, moving or job loss, can cause grief. As grief author Alan Wolfelt writes, “When attachments are threatened, harmed or severed, we grieve.”
Grieving for an upended way of life—our living losses—often produces a vague sense of anxiety, fear, worry, anger or sadness. These unnamed emotions can cause a profound fatigue that invades our mind, body and spirit. We cannot name it exactly, but we know something is wrong and we are tired.
There is another type of tired at work here: pandemic fatigue. "The uncertainty leads to anxiety. The social isolation leads to loneliness. The lack of recourse leads to helplessness. The curtailed freedom leads to frustration and anger. The losses we suffer lead to depression. And this [onslaught] of negative feelings, amplifying and intensifying each other, leads to extreme levels of emotional fatigue. Is there a breaking point to our emotional engine? There is." (Quoted from Psychology Today)
If this were not enough, the COVID-19 precautions that have disrupted our lives have also changed our pets’ routines. Pets experience their own stress and anxiety, but they can pick up on our stress as well. If we are anxious, our pets are anxious, too.
Let the Meaning of Pandemic Sink In
Epidemic and pandemic both describe a disease outbreak, but they are not the same. The difference is scale. Think of it this way—an epidemic is the start of something spreading rapidly within a community or region. A pandemic is what an epidemic becomes after it reaches a large area of people. Endemic means that a disease is present but confined to a specific geographic area or group.
The disease caused by the virus was named COVID-19 (COronVIrusDisease-2019) because it was discovered in 2019. The novel (new) coronavirus had never before been seen. An outbreak describes an illness with unexpected high numbers. As the COVID-19 outbreak began spreading in Wuhan, China, it became an epidemic. Because the disease then spread across several countries and continents, affected a large number of people, and took more lives than an epidemic, it was classified as a pandemic.
Think about it for a moment: The COVID-19 pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease.
Is it any wonder that our lives were disrupted?
Do what you can...
We may think grief is only real if someone dies but other types of losses are also valid and grieving them is part of taking care of ourselves. When we do not grieve our losses, grief can show up elsewhere in our lives as distress, physical illness, depression and despair.
I read that there were two kinds of people during the early months of the pandemic: those who used the time for self-improvement and those who ate frosted carrot cake with their hands. All the advice for smart ways to quarantine with stock photos of beautiful, healthy people depressed me. I felt accomplished if I had changed from my night pajamas into my day pajamas.
You know the advice: Work out, clean and organize, start a project, meditate, learn to cook, read all your e-books or tackle the book pile, take online classes to improve your skills, eat right, and so on. Who has this kind of energy during a pandemic?
If you are surprised to learn that you prefer sweatpants and chocolate covered potato chips during these unusual times, please remember that you are a human being, not a human doing. Grief asks you to slow down because grief is exhausting. It needs your time and attention as much as learning a new skill or starting a project. Do what you can. Rest. Try again tomorrow.
Let the meaning of pandemic sink in.
I was a public health nurse at the height of the HIV | AIDS epidemic. The AIDS epidemic was different from the COVID-19 pandemic, but they share some of the same features: contagion, fear, stigma, reluctance to change behaviors, public misinformation, political discord, death and grief.
Some experts believe the AIDS epidemic teaches us lessons in resilience that we can apply to the current pandemic. Learn more...
Coping with COVID-19 Grief
The suggestions below are not a “how to grieve” manual. Grief is personal. The things that help me may not suit you at all. Take what is yours to take, ignore the rest. Your heart will tell you what you need, or do not need, to heal.
Before we can make sense of our new normal, I believe it is important to grieve the losses. Alan Wolfelt writes that “grief responds to awareness, attention and expression.” It is healing to take some time, recognize the sadness and look at what the pandemic has done to you. Grieve for your losses. They are important.
A lot of us have a vague sense of anxiety or suffering. If you keep a journal, you can write about whatever is bothering you. It helps to identify the losses and reveals ways to move forward.
Some psychologists tell us that focused writing is helpful because it gives structure and organization to your anxious feelings. It helps you get past them and can improve your mental and physical health. But others say that you need focused thought as well as emotions to reap the healing benefits of the writing process. In other words, how do you heal once the strong emotions have surfaced?
Journals are popular, but I offer a word of caution here: Writing about painful emotions or traumatic events can leave you raw and even more wounded, unable to work through the trauma on your own. You may need the support of a mental health professional to benefit from this specific type of writing. If you start to write and find yourself feeling worse instead of better, please stop writing and seek expert advice.
If grief affects the mind, body and spirit, how do we cope?
Care of Self:
First, grief and learning a new way of life, (our new normal), are exhausting. Of course, sleep, exercise, eating well and staying connected are important, but this is not a pandemic boot camp. You may have sleepless nights and spend some days in your pajamas eating candy bars. Let yourself off the hook for being human. Believe that at any given moment, you are doing the best you can. Pace yourself. Engage in activities that you enjoy.
When you are ready, you can once again focus on your health in ways that are beyond coping with the pandemic.
Laughter is Good Medicine
COVID-19 precautions and shutdowns increased the sense of having no control over our own lives. Laughter is one way to ease the stress. There is a lot of quarantine humor on the Internet. My favorites:
Stay inside. Practice social distancing or isolate. Clean myself. OMG, I’ve become a house cat.
I've been stuck at home for so long that I now understand why my dog gets excited by a car ride.
They say we can have gatherings of up to eight people without issues. I don't even know eight people without issues.
Having trouble keeping track of the date? Let me help. Today is Blursday, the fortyteenth of Maprilay. You’re welcome.
Or, how ‘bout these?
I just wiped my canister of Clorox® wipes with a Clorox® wipe. I’m fine. Everything is fine.
Well, it's Groundhog Day...again...and you know what that means: Welcome to the third year of 14 days to flatten the curve.
I have an idea. Let's call the next COVID-19 variant Anothercron...
Please cancel my subscription to 2022. I've sampled the free trial offer and I am no longer interested.
Laughter is good medicine. Go ahead, laugh (or scream) at the absurdity.
Care of Others:
You have probably heard the popular pandemic slogan “We’re all in this together.” The public blow back against COVID-19 rules and vaccinations proves that some of us do not feel this way. A robust economy, personal freedom and public health orders do not peacefully co-exist.
“We’re all in this together” implies cooperation and teamwork. It may be idealistic, but there is truth in it. Like it or not, we are in this pandemic experience together. We can all get COVID-19. We can all give COVID-19. Because the coronavirus can infect anyone who encounters it, each of us benefits when we look out for one another.
As people around us suffer their own difficulties, we can offer help and support. It can be as personal as grocery shopping for an elderly neighbor or caring for a pet while someone works on the front lines of healthcare. Kindness does not have to be complicated. Thank a store employee for being there for you despite the risk. A thank you goes a long way to brighten a person’s day. Try to be patient with other shoppers. They are under stress, too.
Crisis brings many opportunities to volunteer. You could volunteer for a food bank, get involved with a nonprofit charity, or be a foster parent for a shelter animal. Think about activities that have meaning for you. Every act of kindness matters during this difficult time. What will you choose to do?
Volunteering is good, but please be careful. Exposure to the public puts you at greater risk for contracting the virus. Follow agency guidelines. Helping others is both important and exhausting. Be realistic about your limitations, energy level and time commitment.
Connecting with friends and family is essential for emotional health. Zoom, FaceTime and Skype are better than nothing, but zoom fatigue is real and virtual contact lacks physical touch. We miss hugs. Grieve for that loss, too.
You can ease your pet’s stress with physical activity and mental stimulation. Learn simple stress busters for dogs and cats here. As you look to the future and return to school or work, there are also steps to take to prepare your pets for post quarantine life.
I have read that there are many gates to the sacred and they are as wide as we need them to be. Express your spirituality in whatever form it takes. Whether it is spending time in nature, yoga, meditation, caring for animals, participation in traditional religious practices, finding reasons to be grateful or praying to the God of your understanding—nourish the pursuits that bring you peace and give you hope.
Not just the flu
COVID-19 is not “just the flu.” Besides being the deadliest disease in US history, it is more contagious than influenza and has significant long-term effects.
In addition to destroying the lungs, COVID-19 attacks the vascular system making us vulnerable to all sorts of heart problems, strokes, deadly pulmonary embolisms and kidney failure. It may lead to dementia or psychosis and increase the risk of developing mental health issues.
The mystery of long COVID
Long-haulers are people who have not fully recovered from COVID-19 weeks or months after first experiencing symptoms. Recent studies suggest that a person can suffer from long COVID even when the initial infection is mild and does not require hospitalization.
Post-viral syndrome, or post-COVID-19 syndrome, refers to the constellation of symptoms long-haulers experience such as fatigue, brain fog, depression, shortness of breath, chills, body ache, headache, joint pain, chest pain, cough and lingering loss of voice, taste or smell.
Several of these residual symptoms may in fact be postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS. It is sometimes dismissed as the persistent effects of long COVID, or psychological in origin. POTS is a treatable condition but it requires an accurate diagnosis.
An estimated one in five adults infected with the coronavirus develops long COVID.
Doctors are working to understand what happens when kids become long haulers.
It is important to know that long COVID does not have one set of symptoms and the scientific community struggles to make sense of its continuing mystery.
The deadly Delta variant
Experts say the COVID-19 delta variant posed a threat in the United States because it was more contagious than previous strains and produced more serious symptoms, with more chances to mutate as people who were not vaccinated contracted the virus.
The third COVID wave in the summer of 2021 hit rural America especially hard as the delta variant spread across the United States.
Our changing immune landscape
Does everyone eventually become infected with the coronavirus? No. Researchers are studying "Novids" in order to learn why some people have never tested positive for COVID-19.
For those who have had it and survived, no one knows exactly how long immunity lasts, the outcome of viral mutations such as omicron, or if it will cycle again next flu season. Waning immunity heightens the risk of new variants.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations will continue to rise and fall as the virus adapts to a changing immune landscape. Johns Hopkins University experts caution that more surges are possible.The splintering of the omicron variants could shape COVID's next phase.*
The CDC reports that vaccine breakthrough cases are expected. The virus will continue to circulate but it will not cause the same level of severe illness that it has in the past.
Consider, too, that COVID-19 remains damaging for some. In the US, the virus still causes an estimated 300 to 400 deaths every day. Individuals with compromised immune systems are most in peril for developing serious disease.
The latest research finds that a 'super' hybrid immunity occurs if a person has been both vaccinated and developed COVID-19. This special immune response may protect individuals from future infections.
It is worth noting that people should not try to infect themselves with the coronavirus on purpose to achieve greater protection. There are serious health risks involved.
Vaccines and treatments: Historic speed, lingering questions
Vaccines and treatments have been developed with historic speed, but they are not without side effects, allergic reactions and risk. The FDA placed limits on J&J's vaccine use due to the possibility of blood clot formation.
The emerging question is: How long do coronavirus vaccinations last? Even without herd immunity, vaccinating vulnerable people will reduce hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, but the timing of vaccinations and boosters for maximum benefit is complicated.
Another consideration is whether or not the mix-and-match approach to boosters will produce more effective immunity.
There is now an updated bivalent vaccine booster for the Omicron variant. Bivalent means it contains two messenger RNA components of the coronavirus. Half of the vaccine targets the original strain, and the other half targets the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants.
Pfizer's pill Paxlovid can protect people at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19. It can also interact with several classes of prescription medications and some over-the-counter herbal supplements like St. John's wort.
The future of vaccines
Vaccines decrease the risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, but they do not provide durable protection from getting the virus because of the rate at which SARS-CoV-2 viruses mutate.
There are some fledgling attempts to create vaccines that protect against future COVID-19 mutants, or take a broader approach to inhibit unknown coronaviruses. The aim of a universal vaccine, known as a pan-vaccine, is to lessen the threat from new variants before they emerge.
The efforts to make better, more universal coronavirus vaccines are struggling, however. There is insufficient funding and a wide range of other problems, including a lack of urgency.
Another factor in the stall is that Pfizer is not sharing COVID vaccines with researchers for the next generation of studies.
Nasal spray vaccines are in the distant future. This type of vaccine targets the upper respiratory tract where the coronavirus first enters the body. The research lacks funding and the intranasal vaccine is difficult to develop and test.
A tragic milestone
The number of deaths in the US from COVID-19 has surpassed the tragic milestone of one million people.
None of us can be sure how or when the pandemic ends.
The word endemic means in the population. Researchers predict that COVID-19 will become endemic, rather than fully eradicated.
Some epidemiologists believe that endemicity is meaningless because it does not describe the nature of the virus that stays with us. Will it be mild or severe? Rare or common? Seasonal or year round?
The finish line keeps moving
While we do not know what happens next, we do know that we will be balancing the risks of COVID-19 with the tools we have to reduce the risk for a long time. We have entered a new phase of pandemic response that tolerates greater risk, but as Stat News reports: COVID hasn’t given up all its secrets.
Are you confused about this stage of the pandemic? If so, you are not alone. To quote Jaimie Meyer, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist: “We were running a sprint in March 2020, and it turned into a marathon—and now the finish line keeps moving. It’s hard to keep going.”
History informs us that people, not science, decide when a pandemic is over.
Grief changes us
Alan Wolfelt writes, “The virus changes quickly. So will our grief.”
We can never recover all the lost parts of ourselves caused by the pandemic. Our challenge is to heal, as much as we can heal, amid the widespread uncertainty and grief.
People are capable of amazing resilience during times of hardship and tragedy. It is possible to learn new ways of moving forward while we carry the memories of our loved ones, or the way things used to be, into the life we create after loss.
Grief is like a burn with scars—healing can and does occur, but we are changed forever.
How has the pandemic changed you?
Vaccine developments, booster recommendations and treatment options change as science and research change.
The sites below stay current with the changes: