Grief and Loss and COVID-19


The current global crisis brought on by COVID-19 has impacted every member of the University of Michigan community and we at CAPS acknowledge the profound influence it is having and will continue to have on our collective future. That said, a grief response is an entirely expectable and typical reaction, and in any endless number of ways. In fact, the “loss” is staggering and the expression “the whole world has changed” is not entirely inaccurate. And yet in important ways as psychological wellness goes, it is essential to bear in mind that “things” will get back to a “new normal” which likely will resemble daily aspects of life that we miss more than we might imagine.

We sometimes talk about  “ambiguous loss” as one way to name the deep, pit-in-stomach, feeling of dread when we worry about one’s self or one’s loved one contracting the disease, financial or employment-related uncertainty, educational and medical system strain, exposed and pre-existing social and class inequities, the vulnerability of the social fabric, xenophobic trends, or any number of seemingly ceaseless things to obsess and panic over. And we are of “the community” in the global sense. We must emphasize that in a time when “intersections” are critical to understanding common life, who we are in our multiple social roles and histories interacts with the trauma of the pandemic. So many among us were already carrying painful stories and experiences and a time like this can make this “grief-upon-grief” even heavier. This is a time when we can become trauma-sensitive and aware in the radical sense.

Finding Meaning

You may be familiar with a common framework known as “The Stages of Loss.” The contours of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are complemented only with the recent suggestion of meaning as the “sixth stage.” Each of these powerful emotional positions we find our self thrust toward in the throes of grief has something to teach us and it can be especially important right now to find ways to share or release these feelings (connect with friends and loved ones, express through movement or art, etc). CAPS looks to that sixth contour with a special appreciation and invites the Leaders and Best of this University of Michigan, when the time is right, to explore and identify what this historic moment will mean for you. We’re here to help.

Grieving in a “Socially Distant” Culture

The extraordinarily challenging constraints on our mobility and our togetherness bring with them particular complications when we are faced with grief and loss. Grief in the culture of social distance presents new challenges and opportunities. More than ever, we are learning how to connect and share via phone, video, and social media. We think about those who need and don’t have physical touch, those who live alone, and those who live with others but those “others” are not safe to confide in. Grief has a way of working to find its way out of us and we remain committed to creatively finding new ways to express what is needed.

Losing A Loved One

With COVID-19, in addition to the loss of “normal life” all are managing, to lose a loved one to death by this disease or otherwise right now brings with it extra traumatic elements. While every culture has its own rituals for mourning, social connection often acts as a leading light for many. The physical comfort of mourning with family and friends, saves us from enduring the sorrow alone. Social distancing practices don’t only affect how we mourn following a loss, but the good-bye itself. When we are able to share in final moments of farewell, it softens the blow of loss. Now, we are challenged with the question of how to honor the process of death and how to cope with grief without social connection. While holding virtual funerals can provide a semblance of closure, this does not offer a substitute for a warm embrace and a chance to celebrate the life of the deceased. We must accept that grief will look different and occur on a unique timeline for each of us. Finding creative and tangible ways to grieve may be helpful. For example, spending time reflecting on shared memories of our loved ones and writing about the impact they have had on our lives can be a helpful step in coping with grief during these times. It is OK to feel that the grief is too much to bear; we are here to help.
  • Coping With Grief
    • Likely you are overwhelmed and that’s OK. In fact, and even as you take good care, your job right now in part is to “be where you are” with your own experience of this moment. Regimenting self-care and self-compassion will make all the difference in the long run, and so will many other coping strategies including:
    • Practice Self-Care
      • Don’t try to attempt regaining normalcy and routine in the face of crisis. Instead, focus on meeting your basic needs by eating well, staying hydrated, and getting enough sleep.
    • Dual-Process
      • Alternate between activities that are related to the loss (e.g. looking through photos of your loved one, thinking about your lost job or financial insecurity, etc.) and restorative activities, such as planning for the future, spending time on your hobbies or trying new things. This is based on the “dual-process model” of coping with grief.
    • Control
      • So much may feel outside of your control. It is important to focus on what you can control and let go of what you cannot control. You can stay inside, you can keep a safe distance, you can wash your hands, you can wear a mask, etc.
    • Staying Present
      • Much of our grief may come from anticipating negative or scary outcomes. Meditation, mindfulness and grounding exercises help bring our mind to the present moment. Try a guided imagery exercise, progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing or a grounding exercise.
    • Connection Through Technology
      • Yes, those quirky video meet-ups with friends and family can help. We may have been struggling to cope with the vitriol of the social and political environment in this connected social world, but we certainly can make use of this technological capability to maintain vital and life-sustaining social contact and exchange now.
    • Your Pace
      • Recognize that the Acceptance stage of processing grief takes time, does not happen in a predictable way and may take longer for some of us than others. Allow yourself time to work through the pain of loss, and don’t rush yourself.
    • Ask For Help
      • If you are struggling to deal with grief alone, talking to a mental health professional might help. CAPS continues to provide counseling services during the COVID-19 crisis; for more information click here.

In the midst of grief, that this event has generated creativity and generosity is impossible to deny. In this meaning-making and community we can see the resilience we are born with. And so it’s helpful to hold in mind that inasmuch as things are bad right now as we continue to encounter grief, “we” are surviving. That another window of exposure has opened onto gross injustices and daily suffering that precede the outbreak gives us pause at CAPS as we attend to our social justice mission, and with the resilience gleaned from Gratitude for all who are rising to the occasion all over the world right now as we find new ways to connect.