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How COVID-19 Has Made The Grieving Process So Much Harder

COVID-19 has not only taken loved ones but it has also made it harder to adapt to grief. Dr. Joseph Goveas talks about prolonged grief disorder and how to work through it.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic can’t be overstated. At least 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with the infectious disease, which some experts believe is a massive undercount. Unemployment has skyrocketed and the economy is struggling to hang on. People are isolated in their homes, while others are dying in hospitals, unable to see friends and family as they take their last breath. In these dire conditions, it’s no wonder experts say we are facing a mental health crisis. 

Some psychiatrists, like Dr. Joseph Goveas, fear this environment could cause an uptick in prolonged grief disorder and the impact could be felt long after the pandemic subsides. 

“Grief is a natural response to bereavement, which is the experience of loss of a loved one. So typically, acute grief is something that individuals who have lost a loved one experience,” says Goveas, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “Fortunately, most people adapt very well to the death of a loved one. Grief is an everlasting response, so people adapt.”

When that adaptation does not happen, it leads to prolonged grief disorder. That is not the case for 7%-10% of people who lose a loved one, according to Goveas. With COVID-19 forcing people to isolate from each other, this puts those grieving at an increased risk of not adapting to the grief.

“For instance, our health care system has implemented stringent limits on visiting patients in hospital settings. In fact, that is also extended to assisted living and long-term retirement communities, including skilled nursing,” says Goveas. “So the circumstances around death as we know, look very different than what it looked pre-COVID.”

Restrictions around funerals and other rituals make people feel further isolated. “There are so many different added issues that each individual is struggling with, which makes the grieving process even more complex,” he says.

All is not lost though. Goveas has a few tips on how to make those connections and help grieve the passing of a loved one:

  • Don’t just text, video chat with friends and family
  • Take a socially distanced walk or sit outside with a friend
  • Ask friends and family to share good stories about the person they lost
  • Put together a book or digital slide show of memories

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Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.