Addressing COVID-19 Grief and Loss

Interview with Rebecca Bertuccio on dealing with loss during a pandemic.

Posted Jul 03, 2020

Rebecca Bertuccio, used with permission
Source: Rebecca Bertuccio, used with permission

Everyone is feeling the emotional effects of COVID-19. The grief and loss that many are struggling with is a very normal response to the turmoil around us. There are many ways to address these burdens and simply learning more about grief and loss is a great place to start.

Rebecca Bertuccio, M.Ed. is a school psychologist in Delaware. She received her Master's degree in School Psychology from The Pennsylvania State University, where she will be receiving her Ph.D. in school psychology in August.

JA: How did you first get interested in this topic?

RB: When quarantining, stay-at-home orders, and other precautionary practices were first issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a friend of mine reached out asking if I could shed some light on her younger cousins' behaviors. She shared that her cousins were feeling upset about not being in school and were both angry and confused as to why they were not able to see their family members as they did before. After hearing her concerns, I was reminded of Dr. Pauline Boss' research on ambiguous loss and contemplated the role of grief and loss in people’s responses to the pandemic. I felt that it was important to write a paper to raise awareness about the issue, so I reached out to my co-author, with whom I have worked on several research projects (including some on grief and loss), and we put our commentary together.

JA: What was your focus?

RB: The focus of our paper was on the role of grief and loss in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We explored how people may experience different kinds of grief in response to challenges presented by the pandemic. In our commentary, we highlighted three different types of grief, including (a) ambiguous loss, (b) anticipatory grief, and (c) complicated grief. We explain each of the types of grief and provide examples of how they may appear during these times.

JA: What did you conclude in writing the commentary?

RB: Much of the unknowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic may be linked to ambiguous loss. For example, people may question when, or if, their life will "go back to normal" and may experience symptoms of grief as a result. Further, some may anticipate losses to come in the future, otherwise known as anticipatory grief. To illustrate, many may grieve the loss of a graduation, wedding ceremony, or other major milestones due to restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Others may worry about acquiring COVID-19 and related health challenges.

Additionally, due to the various limitations presented by the pandemic, people may have a more difficult time coping with loss. With social distancing expectations in place, it is more difficult to hold a funeral service, say goodbye to a loved one who has passed, or even do something as simple as giving a hug to console someone during a difficult time. As there are fewer opportunities to cope with grief, people may experience more severe and inhibiting symptoms over a longer period of time, or rather, complicated grief.

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?

RB: Overall, readers should remember that grief is a normal response to loss. Responses of grief are not limited to the ones highlighted in our paper. Nevertheless, with grief, people may experience a variety of mental health symptoms similar to depression or anxiety. As such, many may be inclined to align their symptoms with a psychiatric diagnosis. While some individuals may in fact have a clinical disorder, it is critical that folks consider how their symptoms may instead be more consistent with grief. It is important to engage in strategies, such as dialectical thinking, meaning-making, self-care, and telehealth services to cope with grief.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

RB: My co-author and I are looking forward to writing a follow-up piece that will help provide additional guidance to students, school professionals, and/or parents in response to the various challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

References

Bertuccio, R. F., & Runion, M. C. (2020). Considering grief in mental health outcomes of COVID-19. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0000723