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 the lasting effects of COVID-19.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Ernest Hemingway
Updated on March 23, 2023
We have entered year four of COVID-19. The virus has taken lives and changed us forever. Its effects will always be with us.
Although I have deleted topics on this page from the early stages of the pandemic, 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, 6,879,677 people worldwide have died of COVID-19. The CDC reports 1,121,512 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 was 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.
Four 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.**
The grim number of pandemic deaths may be analytical data that changes over time but the deep private grief caused by loved ones dying from COVID is here to stay.
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?
*After three years of historic reporting, Johns Hopkins stopped live COVID-19 data tracking on March 10, 2023. I trusted the resource and checked it every day to update this page. I have less confidence in the accuracy of the CDC and WHO statistics.
*Global source: WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard Updated once a week on Wednesdays.
*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.
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 on March 11, 2020.
Think about it for a moment: The COVID-19 pandemic was the worldwide spread of a new disease.
Is it any wonder that our lives were disrupted?
Let the meaning of pandemic sink in.
Do what you can...
All losses deserve attention and grieving for 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 had this kind of energy during the prolonged quarantine?
If you were surprised to learn that you preferred 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.
Pandemic or no pandemic, we live in a troubled world. On any given day, do what you can. Rest. Try again tomorrow.
I was a young 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
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 did to you. Grieve for your losses. They are important.
Whether related to the pandemic or other turmoil in our lives, 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 your personal 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 the "new normal" are exhausting. Of course, sleep, exercise, eating well and staying connected are important, but this is not a boot camp. You may still 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 how you coped during the pandemic.
Laughter is Good Medicine
COVID-19 precautions and shutdowns increased the sense of having no control over our own lives. Laughter was one way to ease the stress. There was 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 fourth 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 2023. 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 probably heard the popular pandemic slogan “We’re all in this together.” The public blow back against COVID-19 rules and vaccinations proved that some of us did 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 ongoing pandemic experience together. We can all get COVID-19. We can all give COVID-19. Because the coronavirus continues to mutate and can still 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 older adult or caring for a pet while someone works on the front lines of healthcare and emergency response.
Kindness does not have to be complicated. Thank a store employee for being there for you despite the ongoing risk. A thank you goes a long way to brighten a person’s day.
We all have distress and challenges in our lives.Try to be patient with other shoppers. They are also under stress.
Any crisis brings 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, especially during difficult times. 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 in its latest mutation. 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 missed hugs at the height of the pandemic. Grieve for that loss, too.
The COVID-19 precautions that disrupted our lives 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.
You can ease your pet’s stress with physical activity and mental stimulation. Learn simple stress busters for dogs and cats here. As you return to school or work, there are also ways to help your pets adjust to life after COVID.
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 can have significant long-term effects.
In addition to destroying the lungs, COVID-19 can attack 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.
There is good news in 2023. COVID-19 has evolved since 2020, and so have the symptoms. The majority of coronavirus cases are now mild and they do not require hospitalization.
Go to COVID-19 Stats, Facts and More for current information on vaccines and treatments. Use your back arrow to return here.
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.
An estimated one in five adults infected with the coronavirus develops long COVID, although the latest data show that, with vaccination, the frequency and severity of long COVID have decreased over time.
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.
Despite the haunting brain science of long COVID, there are no approved therapies for the physical or cognitive disabilities it causes.
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 deadly Delta variant spread across the United States.
A tragic milestone
According to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center data, there have been over 100 million reported COVID-19 cases in the United States, although the true number is probably much higher.
The number of deaths in the US from COVID-19 surpassed the tragic milestone of one million people in May, 2022.
For every death due to SARS-CoV-2, at least nine people will be affected by that loss. This statistic represents a profound amount of grief in the shadow of COVID-19.
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 strength 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?
The Finish Line
Has any of the pandemic response confused you? 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.”
One of the most confusing aspects of the pandemic for me has been the many changes in expert opinion based on the newest research. As more was published about the coronavirus, it became harder to distinguish scientific fact from misinformation.
Even virologists thought the names of the new viral strains were ridiculous: BQ 1, BQ1.1, BA2.75, XXB, XBB 1.5, nicknamed Kraken, and beyond. Who could keep track?
Most of of us were looking for certainty when there was none. The poor messaging by the CDC did not instill public confidence.
Many people also lost faith in the public health care system, or never had it from the beginning. There are lessons to learn from NASA that can help build or restore the public trust.
It is wise to use caution when interpreting the latest study and be wary of information on social media. It may take years before doctors have enough evidence from research to see a full picture of COVID-19.
2023 and beyond...
None of us can be sure how or when the pandemic ends.
The word endemic means in the population. Infectious disease experts predict that COVID-19 will become endemic, rather than fully eradicated.
Does everyone eventually become infected with the coronavirus? No. Scientists are studying "Novids" in order to learn why some people have never tested positive for COVID-19.
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.
As 2023 unfolds, people who are not at high risk for severe illness are shifting from "avoid exposure" to "accept exposure, live with the virus."
We will be exposed to SARS-CoV-2, but it will be comparable to the way we live with the threat of influenza, measles or the common cold.
This approach to COVID-19 excludes those who are most in peril for developing serious symptoms. They will continue to need protection from exposure through personal action and public policy.
History informs us that people, not science, decide when a pandemic is over.
Web MD: COVID Emergency Orders Ending: What’s Next?
Overview of how the end of the public health emergency will trigger multiple federal policy changes.
Vaccine developments, booster recommendations and treatment options change as science and research change.
The sites below stay current with the changes: