COVID-19 pandemic unleashes an unprecedented wave of grief

Laura Ramirez-Feldman

As of Tuesday, the U.S had surpassed 556,000 deaths from COVID-19, an astonishing figure that means an unprecedented number of Americans are experiencing the grief that accompanies the loss of a loved one.

Health experts who spoke to Yahoo News say they are concerned about what they see as a pandemic of grief, one in which the impact on mental and physical health will have a ripple effect for years to come.

In a U.S. study conducted last year, researchers found that each COVID-19 death affected an estimated nine survivors. That translates to more than 5 million Americans who are currently grieving loved ones lost to the virus.

A new model estimates that nearly 40,000 children have lost a parent to COVID-19, according to a research letter published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

“Children who lose a parent are at elevated risk of traumatic grief,” said the research letter, co-authored by Rachel Kidman of the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University.

“Grief can take many forms, and it can be a loss of a life, but it can also be a loss of the touch of a human. It can be the loss of normal interactions in the workplace or in a casual setting or just the inability to see or talk to [people] in person,” Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Kavita Patel said.

Patel added that for Americans, “loss has occurred on so many levels” that even those who have not lost a loved one may be experiencing grief and not even recognize it.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: Columns representing victims of coronavirus (COVID-19) are lit as they are displayed along the sides of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool after President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris attend a memorial on the eve of the presidential inauguration on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. There have been nearly 400,00 deaths in the U.S. since the first confirmed case of the virus in Seattle on January 2020. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: Columns representing victims of coronavirus (COVID-19) are lit as they are displayed along the sides of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool after President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris attend a memorial on the eve of the presidential inauguration on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. There have been nearly 400,00 deaths in the U.S. since the first confirmed case of the virus in Seattle on January 2020. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Dr. Katherine Shear, founder and director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University, is an expert on the study and treatment of what’s come to be known as “prolonged grief disorder.” This, she says, is a recognizable form of grief that can occur when something interferes with the process of adapting to a loss. When this happens, acute grief can persist for long periods of time, and the sufferer can feel intense emotional pain.

“What we think is behind that prolongation is the stresses and the difficulties around the deaths. Sometimes the difficulties are made more difficult because of the way the person is thinking about the death and also the inability to be comforted, the inability to manage and to adapt to the loss in the usual way,” Shear said.

For Carol Caravassi, 72, of Aubrey, Texas, who lost her husband, Nick Caravassi, in March 2020, the pain of her loss is still fresh.

“Somebody asked me, ‘My husband passed away three months ago. This is so painful. When does this get better?’ and I replied with ‘I’m coming up to a year and I can’t answer that question yet because I’m not there and it hasn’t gotten better.’ It’s actually gotten worse.”

Married for 48 years, the couple was inseparable. They had just moved to Texas from New Jersey to be closer to their only son when they both contracted COVID-19. Carol was put on a ventilator shortly before Nick died, and she didn’t learn about his passing until weeks later.

Caravassi says she still feels anger and struggles with understanding why this happened to her family.

“It’s very hard that I survived and he didn’t. I ask myself every day, ‘Why?’ and ‘What if I had done this or he had done that, would it have worked out differently?’ It’s really hard to do this without him,” she added.

No stranger to dealing with the pain involved with losing a family member, President Biden, who has endured the death of a wife, a daughter and a son, has regularly sought to console Americans who have suffered loss during the pandemic.

“I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens,” Biden said during a February ceremony at the National Cathedral in Washington marking the 500,000th U.S. death from COVID-19. “I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands as they look in your eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivor’s remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul.”

EAST LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 20: Family members gather to mourn Edith Fernandez alongside her casket at the Continental Funeral Home on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020 in East Los Angeles, CA. The 47-year-old died Dec. 8, 2020 from complications of Covid-19. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
EAST LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 20: Family members gather to mourn Edith Fernandez alongside her casket at the Continental Funeral Home on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020 in East Los Angeles, CA. The 47-year-old died Dec. 8, 2020 from complications of Covid-19. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The pandemic has also created many challenges that can interfere with and prolong the grieving process. Some of these include the absence of traditional mourning rituals like funerals and burials, the inability to be physically comforted by family and friends and to attend in-person grief counseling.

Experts believe that prolonged grief disorder will likely increase following the COVID-19 pandemic. Patel, who is also a primary care physician, says addressing unresolved grief is important because of the impact it can have on both the mental and physical health of those experiencing it.

“I have now started to see the physical effects of this — people who have lost someone, who have had no ability to mourn that loss in person, who have not been able to deal with this in the way we would normally do, by getting together or talking about it with a human being in person,” Patel said. “I am starting to see other physical ailments, more patients with joint pain, more patients with problems with their sleep, more patients where their other medical conditions are adversely affected, and all I can do is tie it back to their inability to grieve and to process their grief.”

Studies have shown that grief left unaddressed in children and teens can manifest as depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping and lower self-esteem. In adults, it sometimes turns up as anger, anxiety and alcohol or substance abuse. In addition, the stress of grieving increases health risks such as cardiovascular illness and autoimmune disorders.

So how can one cope with grief?

Patel says that the first step is to acknowledge it and seek the support of loved ones as well as professional help if needed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website offers a list of resources as well as tips for coping with loss.

“Grief is a universal emotion; there is no right or wrong way to experience it, and all losses are significant,” the CDC said.

Shear says self-compassion and self-care are critical while navigating any loss but especially the death of a loved one. Knowing that there is no right way to grieve, she says, is also important.

“What’s so hard about grief is that it is very powerful and progresses in an erratic kind of way. It’s not necessarily predictable,” Shear said. “People ask themselves, you know, ‘Am I grieving in the right way?’ and actually, if you’re grieving, you’re grieving in the right way. You don’t have to ask yourself that question.”

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