Our world has changed so much in the past year since COVID-19 disrupted life as we knew it. We are collectively and individually experiencing a variety of losses from loss of jobs, death of loved ones, loss of safety and more. These losses are coming at many of us so fast and not one at a time, making navigating grief during COVID very difficult, but it possible.

COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that has created a public health crisis for the United States and abroad. Although this is a medical illness it has psychological, economic, physical, and social impacts on us. We are grieving and, in many ways, experiencing collective loss. 

Our normal tools for navigating grief, such as connection to others, might feel out of our reach. We are all navigating new terrain and may need to give ourselves permission to seek support, connection, and healing in ways that we may not have explored before this crisis.

Many people are trying to wrap their minds around the drastic changes to their daily routine, to their life, and are doing so with little to no resources. One of the things that is generally helpful when navigating scary, destabilizing situations is that there is a projected date when the stressor will end or be reduced. The lack of an end-date or path forward is creating anticipatory grief of future losses, including a loss of hope about the future for many people. So we wanted to give you some important takeaways about how to navigate grief during COVID.

Grief is not just about death. Grief is normal.

It is important to normalize grief, especially during this unprecedented life transition.  Grief is the natural and normal response to a loss. We experience grief in response to both physical and symbolic losses. Physical losses are often thought of as involving the physical loss of something or someone. We most often think of grief as it relates to death and dying. We might also grieve the loss of a limb or the physical loss of shelter.

Naming our losses gives us permission to grieve.

There are symbolic losses that we grieve but often struggle to name. Symbolic losses are the intangible losses that some experience daily. Some of us are experiencing grief as a result of loss of safety. Loss of safety can be physical and psychological. The ambiguous nature of how this virus is transmitted and the asymptomatic carriers can create a loss of safety and control. The data shows that rates of child abuse and domestic violence have doubled. We know that many of our kids and survivors of intimate partner violence are grieving safe spaces such as school and work that gave many of them a reprieve from the abuse that they encounter daily.

We can experience feelings of loss because we may not feel confident in our ability to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe from contracting or spreading the virus. We may be feeling a loss of control. Many are experiencing the weight of social distancing and its impact on emotional and psychological wellbeing. We are feeling a loss of connection that virtual hangouts don’t quite fill.

Navigating Grief During COVID

“I feel like I’m failing at everything. I used to know what to expect from my day and now everything feels broken.”

I’ve had countless conversations with friends and clients over the past few weeks about feeling lost about how to move forward. They are feeling unmotivated and unproductive, but the to-do list is never-ending. They are feeling like they aren’t doing their best work and are struggling with losing the part of themselves that felt known…the capacity to do their job “well”.

The loss is variable and may not be present all the time. As we navigate grief during COVID, we may have moments of despair and sorrow and moments where we feel adjusted, this is normal especially during times of crisis. This is one of the differences between grief and depression that we might notice. Grief often ebbs and flows whereas depression seems to be a consistent companion.

Loss of identity and income has been a recurring theme expressed by our clients, colleagues and friends. Our graduating seniors are grieving the loss of their final year in school and all the ceremonies, experiences, and activities that they are missing. They are grieving the loss of dreams of the plans they had for this year. Our displaced employees and employers are faced with impossible decisions and circumstances that can feel very jarring. Our frontline professionals are grieving the loss of patients, and workplace environments that felt safe, known, stable and more autonomous. As you try to navigate grief during COVID it’s important to remember that loss encompasses much more than just the loss of something physical, so be sure to sit down and really sit in your emotions so you can figure out exactly what you’re grieving.

Then there’s death.

“I don’t know if he was in pain. He was alone with no one there that really knew him. I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

I’ve heard this statement more times than I can count throughout my career as a grief and trauma specialist. This is the very real experience that people who’ve had a loved one die during this pandemic are experiencing. The need for social distancing has created a scenario where loved ones aren’t able to be with their family members during their hospital stay or their final moments. This distance and lack of ability to caregive for our loved ones in their final moments has exacerbated the grieving process for many. The thought of burying one’s loved one without being able to gather with family and friends to honor their life is heartbreaking.

Things that complicate grief.

Our attachment needs and relationship to the loss impact how we grieve and the impact that loss has on our grief journey. While grief and loss are universal, our grief journey is unique to each of us, even when we have shared losses. Our previous loss history can impact how we navigate current losses. We may have existing coping strategies and rituals that help us find meaning post loss or our loss history might compound and negatively impact our ability to navigate grief, especially during COVID.

We often shy away from conversations about how economics can impact grieving. It isn’t surprising that those who are financially disadvantaged also are impacted during the grief process.  Individuals who are economically disadvantage might also have to figure out how to bury their loved one or if they can take off work to grieve. Grief exacerbates the gaps in our societal norms around how we normalize “busy” as a response to grief. 

There are so many other factors that can complicate our grief journey. One that is relevant to managing our grief during this pandemic is an uncertainty for the future. Even during grief, we are generally able to look forward to a time when the pain might lessen or when we will adjust to life post loss. The uncertainty about when life will “return to normal” and what “normal” is post this pandemic can create compounded grief.

Kids and grief: The silent griever.

Kids navigating grief during COVID

Children are often missed during their grief process because it often differs from what we recognize as adults. As you navigate grief during COVID with your children, we want to remember that they grieve but we may not recognize their grief through words. Play is the language of children. Additionally, we want to take into consideration the development stage of the child and how this impact their expression of grief. Many young kids express grief through play, behavior and story. We also want to take note of the ways that children’s eating, sleep, and attachment needs might change. For example, you may notice that your teenage desires more physical touch (i.e. hugs, lean ins, etc.) or your toddler needing more attention. It is important that we understand the change in behavior as attempts to have their needs met during times of life transition. Age appropriate conversations are important to have with children so that they have an opportunity to make meaning of the loss (of routine, of school, of friends etc). Young children process information in smaller chunks so they might revisit the topic multiple times in their quest to understand the information that has been shared.

Quick tips on how to talk to kids about death, dying and loss:

Stick to the facts. Answer the question that the child is asking. Use their language to help them process the information. Prepare to have more than one conversation. Books are helpful for your kids, check out the comic on how to talk to kids about corona virus. We have more tips on Talking to Kids about Death and Dying in my book The Gift of Grief: A Practical Guide on Navigating Grief & Loss  

Finding yourself and the gift as we navigate grief during COVID

As we navigate this unchartered path, we will need ways to anchor ourselves in what matters to us and what gives us purpose, even amid chaos. First, its okay to not be okay. One of the most difficult aspects of grief is being present in our own suffering and sorrow. These are big emotions that often come with scary thoughts. Anchoring ourselves in what matters and what is still true and present can help us find purpose and light in the midst of darkness.

Some of my friends are finding ways to be kind to themselves and appreciate the time with their partner and children. Some are finding solace in that they can connect with loved ones near and far that they hadn’t spoken to as regularly before. Grounding themselves in their friendships and relationships has been an effective coping tool.

Finding ways to honor the loss. It is so important that we name the thing. That we give ourselves permission to express our losses without judgment. We are so often expected to simply endure the pain of loss without giving ourselves permission to name our experience, to receive help and to seek healing.

Seeking connection is even more important during this time of physical distancing. We are relational beings and thrive when we have healthy, meaningful connections with others. This is especially true during times of grief and life transitions. Utilize technology and creativity to engage your friends, loved ones, colleague and professionals who provide connection and support.

Fill your cup first. Those of us who are helpers and healers (therapists, pastors, educators, caregivers) both formal and informally need to remember to fill our own cup before attempting to help others. We are human and are impacted personally as well as having the added responsibility (and privilege) of bearing witness to the suffering of others. We know that during times of crisis people experience increases in anxiety, grief, depression, suicidality and more. We are essential but we aren’t immune. Compassion fatigue is real and filling our own cup, engaging in radical self-care can allow us to continue to effectively serve from our overflow rather than a place of depletion. Remember that as you help others navigate grief during COVID, you must do the same.

We’ve created a workbook to help you identify your grief journey and share additional tips on how to navigate grief HERE.

If you’re located in the DC, MD or VA area and would like additional support, Please reach out for help. We are accepting clients for online therapy. Request an appointment on our website or via phone at 301-661-3481. We accept most major insurances.

If you find that you need additional support, please reach out to the following resources:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Intimate Partner Violence Network