Commentary: Grief and loss during COVID-19

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jessica-Lynn Stanley
  • 37th Training Wing

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas After national and worldwide tragedies related to COVID-19, the world faces a new challenge which they have never before – finding ways to mourn loved ones who passed while practicing social distancing and travel restrictions.

Travel restrictions and needed safety procedures in medical facilities may have prevented survivors from visiting a loved one before passing away.

In addition to the physical loss of a loved one, other losses may be experienced through national (and worldwide) tragedy. This can include loss of planned events such as birthdays, promotions, or graduations.

There could also be a lost sense of safety and a shifted worldview. This could be developed from the invisible enemy that is the virus and feeling powerless to protect loved ones or yourself. In addition to the physical loss of loved ones, some may face the loss of a life they once knew either through a familial role (spouse, adult child, etc.) or occupational.

Grief is a typical response to loss. Just like any major milestone in life, commemorating it in some way is essential in being able to acknowledge, pay respects, and reflect on how you will move forward while keeping the loved one’s memory alive.

The grieving process is typically experienced without the help of a clinician. However, due to the unique social and cultural situations which the virus has brought, a more mindful grieving approach will be vitally important.

Especially during times such as these, the grieving process will not look the same to everyone. You may take more or less time to grieve than expected. You may not react how you thought you would. It is more important than ever that you are compassionate and understanding with your unique grieving process.

To assist in self-compassion and grieving here are some important things to consider to support a healthy process:

Taking care of the physical self

As stated in the adage – you can’t drink from an empty cup. It is extremely important to take care of your physical self.

Grief and stress can bring on appetite, and sleep changes. First, be mindful of your sleep routine. Sleeping too much during the day will affect your sleep at night. Keep naps maximum to 30 minutes and be sure to set a timer. Sleeping too much or too little will also harm your mental wellbeing. Aim for no less than 6 and no more than 9 hours a night.

Take a hard look at your overall diet. Remove substances (alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, etc.) which will harm your well-being and sleep in the long-term. Consider the foods you are taking in and ensure you are eating at least 3 times a day.

Often in times of stress, people will reach for high carbohydrates or starches. In moderation these foods are fine, but in excess, they will make you feel sluggish. Also, increase your water intake, not keeping hydrated will make you feel tired and can contribute to headaches.

Lastly, find physical outlets that make you feel accomplished and renewed. Consider a run outside, yoga, or a walk while listening to a positive book/song.

Seeking shared loss connections

If there is not a way to be physically present for a funeral service, consider finding alternative ways to connect with those who knew the deceased or who is going through a similar experience.

Consider sending a floral arrangement to the service or a surviving family member. You could also send groceries or prepared food to surviving family members. If able, you could also assist with final expenses or planning a private service.

Although you cannot be physically present, this is a way to show you care and a standard cultural way to express grief. It may be uncomfortable at first, but consider opening up a type of phone tree through those sharing the loss.

Checking on each other can be done through email, video messaging, phone calls, text, or social media private messaging. Share your feelings about the loss, what it means to you, and the memories you share.

Lastly, be careful what you share on social media and tagging family members. They may not feel comfortable and the timing may be off.  Overall, even though there is a physical separation it does not mean there is an emotional separation. Use technology to reach out, communicate your loss and feelings. This will increase connection and assist in the grieving process.

Seeking online social support

To work through the pain it is beneficial to connect with others who are going through similar experiences.

These connections allow feeling understood, exchange of educational resources, and peer support on how to work through their grief. There are community support groups, and once restrictions are lifted it would be beneficial to seek these out.

However, through online platforms, the grieving can connect with others and meet these needs. There is a vast array of platforms that can meet this need. Here are some organizations (but not limited to) which provide grief support:

TAPS - Offers compassionate care and resources to all those grieving the loss of a military loved one. Connect through or 800-959-TAPS (8277).

Grief Share – Online support which has guided support groups. Connect through – An Internet community of persons dealing with grief, death, trauma, and major loss. Connect through

Military OneSource – Offers information, resources and non-medical counseling to meet the needs of military family members who have lost a loved one. Call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 to speak with a consultant.

Meaning making

It is almost impossible to “find the silver lining” when a loved one has passed away. Finding meaning means connecting with your spiritual beliefs, finding meaning in the event through the survivor’s actions, and discovering a new normal.

Connecting with your spiritual beliefs is another highly individualized process. The grieving process can erupt questions of the meaning of life and spark questions of their previously held beliefs.

Individuals with a formalized religious belief may find comfort in seeking support from their religious leaders or chaplains. If you hold a formal religious funeral/service consider working with a religious leader on ways to have your own personal ritual in your home (i.e. prayer dedication, or candle lighting).

If you do not have a formalized religion, consider mediation or reading to a self-help book on grief.

Finding meaning in a loved one’s death doesn’t have to mean forgetting about the person. There are ways to memorialize the person so their memory lives on.

This can be done by running a race, setting up a charity, or creating artwork in their honor. If there is concern about children knowing the loved one consider setting times (nightly, monthly, or on anniversaries) to share stories of the deceased to pass down.

Another way to find meaning and worth through the loss is to adjust to the new environment without your loved one and what this means for your identity.

Find time to think, talk, or write out what the loved one meant to you, what role they played in your life, and what this will mean moving forward.

Likewise, consider your new identity with this loss. Consider how will your role be different, how will it be the same, how social/familial roles will change, and what you will have to be mindful of in these new roles moving forward. Sitting with those thoughts and working through those challenges will allow for a more thoughtful grieving process.

If your thoughts become too overwhelming, or you need support processing these questions to seek support from a counselor. It is important to note that meaning-making can occur soon after notification of loss or months after. As mentioned previously, everyone’s process is different. Do not push yourself through this process if you are not ready.

With the far-reaching impact that COVID-19 has, it is likely someone you know and cares for experienced a loss.

It is important that despite social distancing, there are things that can be done to support them through the loss.

First, ask honestly and directly how they are doing. Even though you cannot physically visit the person consider video messaging, text, phone, or email. If they do not have the words to fully express the loss – it is ok. It may mean they are just not ready. Do not feel you have to wait for them to ask for something.

Things to consider doing for them while practicing social distancing: send groceries, prepared food, flowers, or clean up their front yard. You might not be able to physically sit with the person, but you can still be a strong source of emotional support.

These are unprecedented times and will have a lasting impact on society. For those who suffered a loss, it can be increasingly traumatic.

Social distancing and travel restrictions can make survivors feel isolated, uninvolved, helpless, and guilt-ridden.

Although the mindful approaches listed here cannot take away all of the pain of losing a loved one, it can support the grieving process.

(Maj. Jessica-Lynn Stanley is a licensed independent clinical social worker.)