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.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Ernest Hemingway
Updated on January 21, 2022: Over the last two years, COVID-19 has taken lives and changed us forever. Its effects will always be with us. Even though I no longer feature the article on the home page, I will continue to make updates here. Some of what you read below is last year's news, but there is still much about this coronavirus that we do not know. While all of us want the pandemic to end, it is not over yet. 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*, 5,576,274 people worldwide have died of COVID-19 and there have been at least 856,288 deaths in the U.S. alone. Johns Hopkins cites as many as 860,248 COVID-19 deaths in the United States. Despite job growth this past year, the rate of unemployment remains higher than before the pandemic. There is a profound global grief, whether for the death of a loved one or a loss of the way things were.
An estimated one in five Americans knows someone who died of COVID-19 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. Two 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. Death has become a statistic. Personal loss is overshadowed by national disaster, much like it was after 9/11.
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?
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: 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. The worst-case 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? Our Living Losses
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
I was a public health nurse at the height of the HIV | AIDS epidemic. The COVID-19 pandemic and the AIDS epidemic share some of the same features: contagion with no cure, fear, stigma, public misinformation, death and grief.
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?
We think grief is only real if someone dies but other types of losses are valid, too 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 have read that there are two kinds of people during the pandemic: those who use the time for self-improvement and those who eat frosted carrot cake with their hands. All the advice for smart ways to quarantine with stock photos of beautiful, healthy people depresses me.
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.
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 quarantine 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.
Laughter is Good Medicine
COVID-19 precautions and shutdowns can increase 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.
Or, how ‘bout these?
Having trouble keeping track of the date? Let me help. Today is Blursday, the fortyteenth of Maprilay. You’re welcome.
I just wiped my canister of Clorox® wipes with a Clorox® wipe. I’m fine. Everything is fine.
I want to 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.
COVID-19 is not “just the flu.” Besides being the deadliest disease in US history, it is more contagious than influenza and has serious long-term effects. Research shows that, in addition to destroying the lungs, it attacks the vascular system making us vulnerable to heart attacks, strokes, deadly pulmonary embolisms and kidney failure. It may lead to dementia or psychosis.
Long-haulers are people who have not fully recovered from COVID-19, weeks or even months after first experiencing symptoms. Post-viral syndrome, or post-COVID-19 syndrome, refers to the constellation of symptoms long-haulers experience such as fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, chills, body ache, headache, joint pain, chest pain, cough, and lingering loss of voice, taste or smell. Little known illnesses are turning up in long-haulers that few doctors understand.
Everyone can get it. Everyone can give it. Vaccines and treatments have been developed with historic speed, but they are not without side effects, allergic reactions and risk. Adults, teens and children ages five and up are eligible for the vaccine.
COVID-19 Vaccines and Kids:
Vaccine developments are an ongoing process. Visit Contagion Live for updates on coronavirus vaccines, including the latest on Pfizer, Moderna, Janssen, heterologous (mix and match) vaccine boosters and antiviral pills. Yale Medicine experts share important information about the J&J booster.
Experts say the COVID-19 delta variant poses a threat in the United States because it is more contagious than previous strains and produces more serious symptoms, with more chances to mutate as people who are not vaccinated contract the virus.
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.
Yale Medicine: It's Time to Upgrade Your Mask (revised guidelines due to omicron surge)
The CDC reports that vaccine breakthrough cases are expected. The virus will still circulate but it will not cause the same level of severe illness that it has in the past.
None of us can be sure how or when the pandemic will end. The emerging question is: How long do coronavirus vaccinations last? So far, the results are promising. Even without herd immunity, vaccinating vulnerable people will reduce hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.
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. We can, however, learn new ways to move forward with our lives. Our challenge is to grieve for our losses without getting stuck there.
Grief is like a burn with scars—healing can and does occur, but we are changed forever.
How has the pandemic changed you?