What Do the COVID-19 Pandemic and Grieving Have in Common?

There are many parallels between pandemic stress and the bereavement process.

Posted Apr 14, 2020

The psychological challenges of the global COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic have much in common with the grieving process. In recognising this overlap, we can learn much about both experiences. 

What are the main parallels between the pandemic and grieving? There are many, but I will focus on just a few. 

Control

Firstly, both centre around a lack of control. These phenomena thrust a person head-first into the reality that we have limited influence over the external world. We sometimes act in ways that attempt to defy this reality; using threats to control another person's behaviour, hoarding household supplies, engaging in rituals. However, earth-shattering events force us to see that life cannot be controlled to the extent we want. 

Loss and Change

The second parallel involves loss. When a loved one dies, profound loss results from the upheaval to your life (e.g., change in daily routine, who you talk to, your interests/hobbies). These forced changes are not dissimilar to what many people are currently experiencing in pandemic lockdown. Work and personal life have been turned upside down for millions of people. In both circumstances, you have lost a sense of familiarity and are prevented from living life as you choose. 

Related to this second point, bereavement and the pandemic are both characterised by change. People like predictability. This commodity is often in short supply with grief (e.g., you cannot pick how you will feel from one day to the next). People have certainly encountered significant change during the pandemic.   

Rules of the Game

Another commonality is that both grief and the pandemic can result in questioning of core beliefs and values. Significant life events may shake up some fundamental assumptions about the world (e.g., I'll always have my brother, good things happen to good people). Bereavement (and COVID-19) untethers us from "life-as-usual," and we are left uncertain about what rules we are playing by.    

What's the Take-Home Message? 

Go easy on yourself. Highly distressing life events usually entail a complex set of psychological issues to navigate through. It is perfectly normal to be on a roller coaster of painful thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in such situations. Self-compassion is critical here; you are trying to cope with weighty issues. Acknowledging this fact can help put your psychological responses in context. 

A couple of additional suggestions which may help you through the grief (and pandemic) process:

  • Know what you can and cannot control. You will encounter more suffering if you try to influence the uncontrollable. For instance, you have more control over your routine, who you seek support from, and your diet than the behaviour of others and the duration of external events (e.g., length of lockdown, how long after a funeral people will take an interest in your welfare).
  • Be flexible in your coping. Over-reliance on one particular strategy is going to impair your well-being. Using a range of different coping strategies can help ensure you remain flexible in your response to unpredictable times in your life.