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Coping with Grief while Coping with the Pandemic

This guest post is written by alumna Katherine P. Supiano, PhD, LCSW, F-GSA, FT, APHSW-C, director ofCaring Connections: A Hope and Comfort in Grief Program

a man sillouetted against a night sky

As I write this, there are now over 633,000 reported COVID-19 deaths in the US; 4.47 million deaths worldwide.  The pandemic has not only affected the grief of those who have lost someone to the coronavirus, but all who have lost a family member of friend to death these past 18 months.

Healthy grief requires attention to the loss of the one who died and attention to the tasks of living. Giving grief the emotional and physical “bandwidth” it needs in a time of stress and social isolation is profoundly challenging.  In unexpected ways, the experience of grieving the death of one you love mirrors the experience of being adrift in the COVID-19 pandemic.  Many of the adjustments essential to staying safe during this time of physical distancing and limited social interaction are similar to the challenges of grieving the loss of a close family member or friend. 

In grief and in this pandemic, the uncertainty about the future looms large.  We recognize that ourlives may never be “normal” again.  We understandably hold on to cherished memories and activities, while gradually realizing that some of these familiar things will never be the same again.  Even the flow of time seems altered—days can blur, nights can be interminably long, weeks can pass with little seemingly accomplished.  Grief-time and pandemic-time seem surreal.  At this time in our shared national lives and in our personal journeys, we need to bring our most effective coping strategies to life and to grief. 

When change or challenge comes in our lives, we cope with it.  We may not cope well or successfully, but whenever we respond to change or challenge, we are coping.  Coping skills may be adaptive, healthy, and effective, or they may be harmful, unhealthy, and maladaptive.  Obvious examples of maladaptive coping skills are medication and drug misuse, self-harm behaviors, impulsivity, blame and vengeance, withdrawal, and shame.

Both grief and the pandemic that constrains us demand that we attend to our emotional selves—feelings of sorrow, fear, pain, and loneliness cycle around and around.  We must accept and allow them to take space and attention without self-judgment.  Plans that we “should” make, things we “must do” may be set aside out of necessity.  In all circumstances, gentleness and self-care may be the most helpful approach.

In all circumstances, gentleness and self-care may be the most helpful approach.

As a nation, we do not “do grief” well—most of us prefer to avoid grievers, or may feel awkward in supporting those we care about who are suffering.  We are a grief-denying society with poor “grief literacy.”  As a member of the Social Work Hospice and Palliative Care Network, I invite you to gain and share compassionate grief awareness that enables the general public and professionals to identify grief more readily, to seek out relevant information, and to adopt appropriate supports to proactively reduce complications from the grieving process.

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Last Updated: 9/22/21