COVID-19 pandemic unleashes an unprecedented wave of grief

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.

Video Transcript

KAVITA PATEL: We are approaching 600,000 deaths in the United States from the coronavirus alone. It's hard to grasp the magnitude of that number, so it helps sometimes to put it into context. Many of us were around during 9/11, and the number of deaths we've had on a daily basis are equivalent to having a 9/11 every one to three days.

We're so numb to the numbers that we have to actually start to recognize what those numbers mean. That's a loss of people's families. That's a loss of community. That's a loss of someone you might work with that you haven't seen in over a year, and they have died without your ability to even say goodbye to their family. Loss has occurred on so many levels.

M. KATHERINE SHEAR: So grief is our response to loss. And when we lose something that's meaningful to us or someone who's meaningful to us, and especially when we lose someone close, which we know is happening very, very often, sadly, during this pandemic, we experience grief.

Complicated grief is a recognizable form of grief which essentially is prolonged, pervasive, strong grief. In fact, it's now being called prolonged grief disorder. It is included in the World Health Organization diagnostic as a new diagnosis.

What we think is behind that prolongation is the inability to manage to adapt to the loss in the usual way. There are so many complexities surrounding the management of the illness. And then, of course, the inability to be with our loved ones when they're transitioning is so, so difficult.

And that is followed by the inability to be physically comforted by friends and relatives who would ordinarily be there for us, and the inability to have the kinds of rituals that we are used to and that are sort of traditional-- the funeral, a burial, all of that. It's just kind of one stress after another, and one kind of specific challenge around death and dying that comes with this pandemic that has made it really, really difficult for people.

KAVITA PATEL: The first important thing is to recognize that 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, can be the loss of normal interactions in a workplace or in a casual setting, or just the inability to see or talk to your friends in person. So you have to actually first acknowledge it.

M. KATHERINE SHEAR: Part of what's so hard about grief is that it is very powerful, and it kind of-- kind of progresses in an erratic kind of way, you know, not necessarily predictable. And people ask themselves, you know, am I grieving in the right way? And if you're grieving, you're grieving in the right way. You don't have to ask yourself that question. Be compassionate towards yourself, and allow yourself to grieve in whatever way you are grieving.

KAVITA PATEL: The second step is to then really think about where you are in seeking help. Some people do not feel comfortable in talking to a grief counselor. That's OK. But talk to somebody. If it's a trusted health professional, great. If it's a member of a house of worship, that's great. If it's just somebody else who you trust as a friend, that's important, too.

M. KATHERINE SHEAR: If you want, there are grief support groups on the internet. Sometimes people find those very helpful.

KAVITA PATEL: And then the third step is to also, at some point, talk to a health professional because of the impact it can have on other parts of your life. Everything from sleep to weight to your overall health can be affected by grief of any type.

M. KATHERINE SHEAR: So we have to accept that very painful reality and all that's associated with it. And then you also have to be able to start to envision your own life in a positive way and have happiness in our lives again, which is, of course, what we would want for our loved ones if we had been the ones who died, and we know they want it for us.