Grief During the Pandemic

Finding one’s way through mourning and loss

Carisa Urban was quite literally at the end of her rope.

Working tirelessly as a nurse in a Covid-19 intensive care unit at a busy Chicagoland hospital, the Bolingbrook resident had her hands full. 

She found herself not only treating an onslaught of severely ill patients, but also personally dealing with the physical and mental stress of the pandemic. 

And just when she thought things couldn’t get worse, they did.

“Two of my dear uncles passed away within months of each other,” explains the 46-year-old quietly. “It was so difficult, because as a family, 

we were used to finding closure over a loved one’s death through events such as a wake and a funeral, but the pandemic had us grieving in such non-traditional ways. I never knew how much power a hug had until I wasn’t able to give or receive one.”

Indeed, it’s a plight many have found themselves facing. With more than 600,000 U.S. deaths due to Covid-19, millions of Americans are grieving loved ones. The grief of those losses — and the loss of our old normal — will echo for years to come.

Pandemic strain

The strain and stress of grief has been a common plight for caregivers throughout the years. However, adding a pandemic to the mix has left many caregivers feeling depressed, angry, and downright perplexed as to how to handle it all. 

“We are experiencing a collective grief that we have never experienced before in our lifetimes,” says Susan Angel Miller, Wisconsin author of Permission to Thrive: My Journey from Grief to Growth and a mother whose teen daughter suddenly passed away in 2009. “Grief isn’t just about death. It’s about the loss of expectations and the loss of doing what we want to do.”

Many have had to say goodbye to loved ones over a phone or screen or perhaps not at all, as hospitals and care facilities banned visitors throughout almost all of 2020.

The losses can feel deeper because many of our shared grieving rituals were limited during the pandemic. With small funerals, Zoom visitations, and virtual shivas, it’s hard to find an outlet for grief. We’re missing communal support. 

“Essentially, there are now restrictions on the grieving process,” says Samantha McGlumphy, a bereavement services manager with JourneyCare, a nonprofit, community-based organization that provides care and support to families living with serious illness. 

“You might not have been able to hold the hand of someone in their final stages of life, or you might not have been able to feel the comfort that comes when families and friends gather to mourn someone. Not saying goodbye the way you wanted to will leave many with unfinished business they will need to face at some time.”

McGlumphy says she and her hospice colleagues are spending more time following up with families to ensure that they are grieving in a way that will ultimately provide healing.

“Much of a caregiver’s meaning, purpose, and routine have been significantly altered when they lose the loved ones they have been caring for,” McGlumphy says. “And now, with the ongoing pandemic, there is an additional pressure on our grief. Many feel like Covid is literally robbing them of their grief. They can’t focus or dedicate time to their grief because they are worried about getting sick or their work and their finances. But the sad thing is, grief is always with us.”

And sometimes, that grief can become too much to bear.

“The typical symptoms of grief can be very wide ranging, from being angry to being depressed to being anxious,” McGlumphy says. “But you must take a close look at one’s functioning. If they begin isolating themselves or they have lost their ability to take care of themselves or their responsibilities, they may need some extra help.”

Finding support

When it comes to dealing with grief, it’s important to lean on loved ones and also to take care of yourself. 

“One must reach out for emotional support when you need it,” Miller says. “Whether it’s talking to a friend on the phone or journaling to make your brain process what you are going through.” 

Experts agree that self-care has never been more important. “You must do things every single day that give you pleasure, whether that’s a walk outside or taking a hot shower,” McGlumphy says. “These things have never been more important.”

Luckily, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The availability of vaccines is allowing us to once again hug our friends and extended family members. It may also allow us to finally come to terms with the grief that we’ve put off truly going through.

Collectively as a country, we are experiencing some of the hardest times in our lives. Yet, finding connections can help us heal.

“As humans, we are programmed to handle grief,” Miller says. “You can experience both happiness and sadness at the same time. The emotions don’t cancel each other out. If you find that you are smiling or laughing or experiencing other glimmers of hope, you are going to be okay.”