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Grief in the Midst of COVID-19

The COVID-19 epidemic is likely to complicate grief.

As I write this, the COVID-19 or coronavirus pandemic is still raging and we are still generally living in isolation. For those of you reading who are in the midst of grief, this time may seem particularly difficult. It probably is.

There are a number of reasons for that. If the death was relatively recent—even unrelated to the pandemic—you may have had a limited funeral, or perhaps none at all. The comfort we get from such a gathering of support is not there.

Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic may be affecting your grief in many ways. First, when we experience a death, it often affects our sense of the world. The world seems less safe, less benevolent, and less predictable. In a time of a pandemic—especially of a new and unpredictable disease—these feelings are amplified. So we may feel a greater sense of anxiety that adds to your grief.

Second, one of the best anecdotes for grief is social support—whether you find it in the informal company of family and friends or in the more structured setting of support groups. Given the fact that social distancing may limit access to that grief, many people may find that more and more, you are coping with your grief alone.

In addition, if you are living in an area with a large number of deaths, grief support—whether the informal support of friends or the formal support of grief groups—can be strained and overloaded on top of the need for social distancing. The need has outpaced the services available.

Recently, two colleagues, Bill Hoy and Helen Harris, suggested that we substitute the term "physical distance" for "social distance." Humans are inherently social animals who need contact with others. And while it is important to avoid contact that spreads infection, it does not mean that you should isolate from others. Happily, telephones and social media can provide opportunities for continued—yet safe—contact. Nowhere is that more important in times when you are struggling with loss. Certainly, keep physical distance but recognize and nurture your need for continued contact with friends and family at this critical time.

Nurture, too, your own health. One of the groups most at danger from this pandemic are those who may have weakened immune systems. When you are in the midst of grief, you may find that your immune system is compromised—especially if you are older. Years ago, Dr. Colin Murray Parkes coined the term The Broken Heart Syndrome to account for the fact that many older widowers and widows experienced a higher death rate during the first year of bereavement.

There are many reasons for this. Grief is highly stressful and stress affects your immune system—making us more prone to illness. Secondly, most diseases today, such as heart disease or cancer, are influenced by our lifestyle, including diet and exercise.

Generally, much of the lifestyle is shared with your spouse. If your spouse was the loved one who you recently lost, what influenced their illness may also be affecting yours. Finally, when a spouse dies, your lifestyle may change. You may no longer be eating the meals you once did, sleeping as you had, or exercising as you once did.

There is another issue as well—the disenfranchised grief experienced by those whose loved ones did not die of the coronavirus. Disenfranchised grief occurs when someone experiences a loss that is unsupported or unacknowledged by others. This can occur especially in times of crisis. Here, the crisis overwhelms other times of loss. For example, a beloved aunt of a client died on September 12, 2001. He noted that whenever he mentioned he was going to a funeral, people asked whether the death was related to the terror attacks. When he said "no," interest waned.

The same thing can be experienced now. With the coronavirus so prominent in the news, deaths from other “natural causes” can seem less important—and those grieving disenfranchised.

Caring for you, then, becomes a key aspect of bereavement. Regular exercise, good nutrition, adequate rest, and actions that help you effectively cope with stress are more essential now than ever. That helps you not only deal with your loss but also stay healthy.

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