Grieving During the Coronavirus: Advice From a Clinical Psychologist

April 16, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has upended our lives and routines in recent weeks, generating fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. Coping with this disruption — adjusting to staying home, working remotely, and distancing ourselves from others, among other changes — has been difficult for many.

It can be especially challenging if someone you love has died during the pandemic, regardless of their cause of death, as the ways in which we typically grieve and honor our loved ones are unavailable or altered. 

If your loved one has recently died, these tips offer suggestions for grieving during this incredibly difficult and isolating period.

Acknowledge that we are in a different time

Doing so helps manage our expectations of ourselves and others. 

Living during the COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much of how our society functions, including how we care for the sick, how we care for the dying, and how we care for the bereaved, with our sense of control challenged at all levels. Routines and rituals that normally bring comfort aren’t readily accessible, which can increase feelings of isolation and loss.

Understand the nature of grief

This is important, as grief is far more complex than most people think.

Grief is characterized by deep sadness and a yearning to be with the person who died. It’s also a normal reaction following other types of losses, such as being diagnosed with a serious illness or losing your job. Grief typically follows a wave-like pattern that tends to ease over time as people adapt to their changed circumstances and regain a sense of control in their lives.

Give yourself permission to grieve

This creates the space to acknowledge the different emotions that come with loss.

When someone you love dies, it is common to experience a range of emotions, including sadness, anxiety, loneliness, regret, anger and guilt; you might find that some of these emotions are even more intense right now.

Replaying events and going over details in your mind are a normal part of how we try to make sense of something, even death. It is likely that you will have many questions but few answers.

During this pandemic, our society has had to make many changes to keep everyone safe. As a result, many other losses need to be mourned, including not being at the hospital when a loved one died or not being able to sit Shiva, or hold a wake, memorial service, or funeral.

Create a daily routine

When grief is new, routines provide a sense of structure to your day, especially during uncertain times like these.

  • Try to wake up and get out of bed at the same time each day
  • Eat at regular mealtimes, if you can
  • Plan your day in ‘chunks’ of time — including meals, exercise, tasks related to your loved one’s estate or death, work, or connecting online with family and friends.
  • Make a daily ‘to-do’ list and check off items as you complete them, such as attending to administrative tasks or sorting through your loved one’s belongings
  • Carve out time to grieve — being sad is normal when you are grieving and it’s important to give yourself permission to do so, and to acknowledge the other emotions you might be experiencing

Focus on your self-care

This is always recommended, given the stressful nature of grief.

  • Practice increased hygiene, especially handwashing with soap
  • Try to eat, even if you don’t feel like it
  • Where and when possible, avoid processed foods
  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Exercise daily – consider an online exercise or yoga class
  • Try an online meditation app or check out some guided meditations available here.
  • Keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings and list any questions you have
  • Limit your media exposure

Challenge your thinking

Remember that how and what we think affects how we feel and what we do.

In very stressful situations where we don’t have a lot of control, our thinking can often make us feel more distressed and upset.

If you are aware that you are feeling increasingly strong emotions related to your loved one’s death, such as guilt, anger or distress, ask yourself: What am I thinking? or What am I telling myself about what happened? It can be easy to blame yourself, even when there is no evidence for doing so.

To challenge your thinking, ask yourself: How would I advise a friend in the same situation? or What would my loved one say if they were here now?

It often helps to write down your thoughts and your answers to the questions above and try to stick to the facts.

It can also be helpful to remind ourselves and others: We are in a pandemic that has caught the entire world by surprise. Difficult decisions had to be made for the health of our society as a whole, which were beyond the control of any individual.

Reach out for support

Staying connected to your family and friends is especially important right now.

  • Connect daily using technology with your family and friends, even if you don’t feel like it
  • Call your doctor’s office and schedule a virtual visit
  • Arrange a call with someone from your spiritual or religious group
  • Consider joining an online support group
  • Make a virtual appointment with a grief counselor, especially if you feel overwhelmed or have little support
  • Call a national hotline

Adapt rituals

You can still honor your loved one in different ways.

  • Plan a “virtual celebration of life” where friends and family members can come together, to share pictures, and to reminisce
  • Consider writing your loved one a letter or leaving them a voicemail – you can tell them how you feel, especially if you were unable to say a proper goodbye
  • Make a playlist of their favorite music and share it with others in their memory

Plan for post-COVID-19

Making plans helps us feel more in control.

  • Make a ‘to-do’ list of tasks that you will need to complete when the COVID-related restrictions ease
  • Plan a memorial event or service for your loved one if you weren’t able to
  • Consider attending a support group for bereaved families who were impacted by COVID-19
  • If you have unanswered questions for your loved one’s medical team, you might want to write them down and consider contacting the team at a later date to arrange a meeting

This article was written by Sue Morris, PsyD, director of Bereavement Services in the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.

Learn more about about coping with grief. Information about the coronavirus (COVID-19) can also be found here.