COVID's Added Impact to the Grief of Losing Loved Ones
Research shows how we can better support those grieving from loss during COVID.
Posted Feb 10, 2021
This past year has been filled with dysfunction, loss, difficulty, and isolation. For those who have lost loved ones to the pandemic, how are the continued effects of COVID affecting their grief? In this interview, Sherman Lee discusses his research on pandemic grief.
Sherman A. Lee, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. He studies negative feeling states, such as anxiety and grief, and the role personality and religion play in those emotional experiences. He is also the developer or co-author of popular psychological instruments such as the Persistent Complex Bereavement Inventory, the Coronavirus Anxiety Scale, and most recently, the Pandemic Grief Scale.
Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?
Sherman Lee: I became interested in the topic of pandemic-related grief the moment this infectious disease outbreak began. However, I did not get involved in studying this topic until October of 2020 because I was preoccupied with the coronavirus anxiety line of research I started back in March 2020. When October 2020 arrived and there continued to be very little academic and clinical attention to the unique needs of those bereaved by a COVID-19 death, which numbered in the millions worldwide, my colleague, Dr. Robert Neimeyer, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Psychology, University of Memphis, and I decided it was time to shift our attention to this growing, but silent, public health emergency. We began this work by developing the first instrument to accurately identify those suffering from dysfunctional levels of pandemic-related grief. We believe that this tool can help millions of bereaved people get the support they need during this vulnerable period of time.
JA: What was the focus of your study?
SL: On November 3-5, 2020, our research team surveyed 831 adults who lost a significant person in their lives to COVID-19. Using this sample, we were able to statistically identify five grief symptoms that distinguish between persons with and without dysfunctional levels of griefs. These five grief symptoms—which are death wish, identity confusion, apathy, difficulty reminiscing, and meaninglessness—were strongly tied to functional impairments and form the basis of the Pandemic Grief Scale (PGS). What is unique about this study is that it is the first scientific study of COVID-19 grief.
JA: What did you discover in your study?
SL: Results from this study showed that losing a loved one to COVID-19 is a serious mental health concern of our time, as 66% of the sample scored in the clinical range of dysfunctional grief. The results also showed that those suffering from this form of grief tended to cope with their loss by using alcohol or drugs, were disabled by their grief, and were highly depressed, anxious, and undergoing spiritual crisis, as well. Basically, this study provides a glimpse into the second potential pandemic, one that is characterized by complicated grief and will need to be addressed with a strong national response.
JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?
SL: Although we anticipated finding a significant number of people suffering from dysfunctional levels of grief, we did not expect that number to be so big. 66% is a very large percentage of people who are undergoing, not only one of the most stressful events in life, but doing so under the constraints of the pandemic. What we found in a secondary analysis of this study was that the unique circumstances of this pandemic, such as the social isolation policies and lack of proper funeral or memorial services, uniquely contributed to the grief, pain and dysfunction that these bereaved individuals were experiencing.
JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?
SL: Recognize that losing a loved one to COVID-19 can be an overwhelmingly difficult event that can have a detrimental impact on one’s day-to-day life. Also recognize that, in addition to the feelings of sorrow one has when someone they love dies, the bereaved can also struggle with other strong reactions, such as resentment, anger, guilt, and spiritual crisis because of the unique conditions brought about by this pandemic. Because of the potential psychological difficulties that can emerge from a COVID-19 loss, readers should be made aware that many health professionals are trained to provide the bereaved with the support and treatment they require. There are also many resources on the internet that can be used to help support the bereaved.
JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amid this pandemic?
SL: It is vital that we support those who lost a loved one to COVID-19. Because social isolation can worsen one’s feelings of loneliness and grief during the pandemic, it is important for us to find effective, safe, and creative ways to stay connected with the bereaved. If the bereaved appear to be struggling with their loss, encourage them to seek professional support.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
SL: My colleagues and I are continuing our research into this COVID-19 grief phenomenon and have started to expand our work across different countries. What we have learned so far, after six studies, is that this pandemic has brought about a unique form of psychological suffering that has elements of trauma, attachment-distress, and deep emotional pain. There is much more for us to learn about COVID-19 grief so that we can help professionals develop effective strategies to support grieving persons during these unprecedented times.
Lee, S. A., & Neimeyer, R. A. (2020). Pandemic Grief Scale: A screening tool for dysfunctional grief due to a COVID-19 loss. Death Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2020.1853885