How to Cope With Grief During the COVID-19 Pandemic

If you or someone you know is struggling, here, experts provide insight for people coping with loss in the COVID-19 pandemic

In the United States, at least 11,850 people have died from COVID-19 as of Tuesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Yuichiro Chino/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered everyone’s daily lives, including how people grieve the loss of a loved one.

In the United States, at least 11,850 people have died from COVID-19 as of Tuesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. 

The pandemic is creating a new context for people to comprehend death and grief, because so many people are dying in quite “disturbing” ways, Katherine Shear, internist and psychiatrist and director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia School of Social Work, tells CNBC Make It

“It’s taking the lives of people who wouldn’t have died otherwise,” she says. Often they are alone, without physical contact from their loved ones because of social distancing measures and hospital regulations that prohibit visitors, she says. 

Rituals that we typically rely on to say goodbye to people, such as having funerals, sitting “shiva” or visiting a loved one in the hospital, are also being taken away from us due to necessary social distancing, R. Benyamin Cirlin, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director of the Center for Loss and Renewal, tells CNBC Make It.

Many people are experiencing a “collective grief” for other losses, such as jobs, normal life or connection. “Now everybody has got, on some level, a shattered assumption and some level of grief,” he says. And any kind of grief can feel like the “worst pain in the world,” he says. 

Given how many aspects of life are changing at such a rapid pace, and often without warning or time to prepare, the situation feels like a “tsunami of loss,” he says. 

If you or someone you know is struggling, here, experts provide insight for people coping with loss in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Make a call

Grief can be a profoundly isolating experience under normal circumstances, Lennon Flowers, co-founder and executive director of The Dinner Party, a platform for grieving 20- and 30-somethings, tells CNBC Make It.

“Part of the experience for people is this feeling of removal from all of your peers and your normal day-to-day, because suddenly you’re there is no more normal,” she says. There’s a societal expectation that you’re supposed to be able to “get over it or move forward,” which is not always the case, she adds. 

When people feel lonely, it exacerbates this and keeps them from honestly being able to name or process the emotions that they’re feeling, which is a “critical” aspect of grief, she says.

What’s unique about COVID-19 is that everyone is touched by it in some capacity. “In this moment, we need more social connection more than ever, even if we can’t physically be in the same room with one another,” she says. 

Flowers suggests making a list of people who you’re going to call every two weeks or deciding among your friends and family to share “check-in duties” for someone who you know may feel isolated right now.If you recently lost your job, reach out to people who work in your field and see if they can pass along opportunities.

Whether you’re Zoom video conferencing or talking on the phone, “do everything that you possibly can to be present,” she adds. “Treat those spaces with the same sacredness that you would treat a conversation around the dinner table.”

Consider postponing grief

“Grief is one of those things that really takes all of our attention and kind of hijacks our life for a period of time,” Shear says. There are some situations in life when it makes sense to postpone the grieving process, and the COVID-19 pandemic may be one of them for some people, she says.  

For example, if you lost your job or need to focus on keeping your family safe during the pandemic, you may not be able to afford to grieve in the moment. “That doesn’t mean push it away,” she says. “But let those surges come, and then let yourself set them aside, too.”

Remind yourself that you’re going to be able to grieve as soon as you have a chance, she says.

Tell stories — and listen

“The goal of grieving ultimately is to learn how to love a person via absence,” Cirlin says. It allows you to slowly make some narrative sense out of a life that, may have ended in a way that doesn’t make sense to you, he says.

Sharing memories is helpful to bereaved people at any point, Shear says. Figure out ways to tell the story of the person who died. For example, you could ask people to share stories in comments on a Facebook post, in a group text or during a Zoom video conference.

If you’re not sure what to say to someone who’s grieving, the best thing you can do is just listen, and be available to a person, Shear says. “It can be really hard to listen to a grieving person, because there’s no solution,” Cirlin says. “So, it is really about a willingness to be to open and to validate the person.”

Seek mental health assistance from an expert

Therapy can help bereaved people in a number of ways, Amy Cirbus, a licensed mental health counselor and the director of clinical content at the online therapy site Talkspace tells CNBC Make It. Mental health clinicians can help you understand what you’re feeling and develop coping skills, for example.

“They can help you understand the duration of what grief really looks like over the course of time,” she says. Having someone provide guidance on the grieving process can give you some stability during a time that otherwise feels very uncertain.

Taking the initial step to see a therapist is “incredibly hard and can be overwhelming,” she says. Luckily, many therapists have developed teletherapy services amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which might feel less intimidating that going to therapy in-person.

And if you’re grappling with financial stress or job loss, it’s still important to prioritize your mental health and see a therapist.

Don’t get caught up in guilt

When people are robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye to someone, it “gives rise to all kinds of fantasies,” Cirlin says. For example, someone might ruminate about whether their loved one was in pain before dying or experience feelings of guilt that they couldn’t say something in time.

“There’s two kinds of guilt: there’s guilt that you did or didn’t do something, and then there’s survivor guilt,” Shear says. Survivor guilt can often feel more pronounced, and it “makes you feel like you shouldn’t enjoy things yourself.” Whether you’re grieving or helping someone who is, it’s important to “open opportunities for positive feelings in some way,” she says.

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