Coping with Grief and Loss During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Tens of thousands of Americans have died in the COVID-19 pandemic. This is by far one of the most significant disasters in U.S. history, and the loss of life is unprecedented; now exceeding over 100,000 deaths.

COVID-19 is rapidly changing our perception of the world, upending our feelings of predictability and security. More than that, we ache from loss – the loss of freedoms, the loss of livelihoods, the loss of connections, and most of all, the loss of human life. Many resources have been developed and made available for coping with the mental, educational, financial, and physical strain of this crisis, and that is to be applauded. Countless people across the country have found help, assistance, guidance, and even solace in the materials and support being provided.

What is lacking, from my perspective, is a similar level of support to the tens of thousands of families who have lost a loved one to this virus. These families are grieving from their losses and may also be dealing with the guilt that can accompany surviving something that others close to them have not. They may even feel guilty for not having sought treatment sooner, or from having passed the virus on, however unintentionally.

However, rather than a concerted effort to help families in their time of grief, we are instead seeing a new form of prejudice and discrimination – a “Coronavirus Stigma” that may have started with xenophobic overtones and has now extended to a sense of discrimination against almost anyone who has had the disease and their families. I know about this as people that I love and care about lost a loved one and are suffering. Suffering from sadness and heartbreak. Suffering from guilt. Suffering from this stigma.

Perhaps the most unfortunate way prejudice and discrimination are being manifested is the lack of resources being provided to the families who have lost a loved one. In the aftermath of 9/11, our country came together to care for our mourning families. We rallied around survivors, first responders and those who had lost husbands, wives, siblings, or children, and we made sure that programs were available to help in the months and years to come. It was a time of solidarity that changed the fabric of our nation. To date, even though COVID-19 has taken more than fifteen times the number of lives as 9/11, our response has been dampened by fear and avoidance.

In response to this pandemic, we must be prepared to support the survivors and those who are mourning. This grief is wide-reaching and inclusive, affecting people in every corner of the country.

Grief and mourning are social processes that brings people together to honor and celebrate the loved one who has passed, creating connections and supports that ultimately contribute to healing and closure.

Today, this honoring looks and feels quite different as we – by necessity – must maintain healthy space from each other. Saying goodbye is a luxury, making the closure process difficult, and we are compounding the problem by not focusing on a collective approach to support the families who have experienced the ultimate loss.

We need to validate and listen to every one of those who have lost a loved one as a result of this pandemic, and continue to do so in the days, months, and years to come. Every press conference and public event addressing COVID-19 should begin by thanking our first responders and those that risk their own health and lives by helping others. We should also express empathy to those who have suffered and sacrificed the most.

In our collective history we have always cared for those who were hurting. We now need to let survivors know that it is Okay to Say that you have been impacted by COVID-19, and in the case of people who have lost a loved one, we can start by simply acknowledging their tremendous loss and letting them know that we are here for them – today and always.

Gary M. Blau, Ph.D.
Dr. Blau is the Executive Director of The Hackett Center for Mental Health, a Regional Program of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. Prior to this he was Chief of the Child, Adolescent and Family Branch at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Follow him on Twitter @GaryBlauPhD

About The Hackett Center for Mental Health
Through the generosity of the Maureen and Jim Hackett Family, The Hackett Center for Mental Health was established in January 2018 as the inaugural regional program of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) to serve the Greater Houston and Gulf Coast Region of Texas. Leveraging the participation of exceptionally skilled researchers, community leaders, and health care providers, The Hackett Center’s purpose is to transform systems and influence policy through unprecedented collaboration.