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Grief during times of COVID-19

The pandemic continues to persist around the globe and we witness its repercussions ripple through society. Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 is currently a leading cause of death worldwide: as of 12th September 2020, the death toll has surpassed 900,000. Our blog today explores the ubiquitous theme of ‘Grief and Death’ during Covid-19 and how existing psychological research may help us better cope with the days to come. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we would also like to take this opportunity to direct our readers to additional resources that may support you during these times, including ways to cope and support those who have lost loved one(s).

Understanding grief

Grief is painful, both physically and psychologically. Research has shown that this pain predominantly emerges from two realisations: that one cannot control fate and that contact with a loved one has been permanently severed. These realisations highlight two fundamental human yearnings: the wish to be close to loved ones and the wish to influence one’s surroundings. 

Each person will cope with grief in their own way. It is important to note that there is no ‘correct’ way to grieve. One of the most widely held psychological myths in society is that grief proceeds in stages. The ‘5 stages of grief’ theory, created by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, postulates that grieving persons experience stages of denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. Interestingly, there is currently no empirical evidence that people undergo most of or any of the 5 stages. The grieving trajectory does not comprise a discernible sequence of stages but instead, consists of the ebb-and-flow of an array of emotion.

Bereavement and the pandemic

In today’s world, broadly speaking, there are two types of bereaved people affected by the pandemic: previously bereaved and newly bereaved

Previously bereaved individuals:

  • May find the experience bewildering and frustrating (“no one seemed to care about grief before the pandemic”)
  • May find that lockdown is somewhat reminiscent of the early days of grief (“I feel trapped in a strange world again and am surrounded by memories and triggers at home”)

Newly bereaved individuals:

  • May not have been able to properly say goodbye to loved ones or been able to give them a proper funeral
  • May not be able to distract themselves by engaging with activities
  • May feel that the shock and numbness they are experiencing is constantly triggered by our current global climate

Can anything be done to make things easier?

I recently conducted a year-long BSc dissertation at UCL on sibling bereavement which may lend some insight into our understanding of coping with grief during the pandemic. Sadly, there is no therapy that can cure grief since most of the emotions bereaved people experience are rational: if someone you truly love dies, it would be abnormal to not be heartbroken.


Nevertheless, the bereavement literature has generated some intriguing findings: research has shown that the majority of bereaved persons, approximately 55-85%, are known as ​resilient grievers. A ​resilient griever​ is defined as a bereaved person who experiences short-lived and distressing episodes of grief throughout an otherwise stable trajectory of healthy functioning. My research addresses influencing factors for resilient grief, which may help individuals return to ordinary pre-loss routine functioning. Below are some factors:

  1. Social Support, identified by nearly 60% of the participants, includes emotional and tangible support such as love and financial assistance. Connect with people as much as you can; even during a pandemic you can speak to people through WhatsApp, Zoom and other social media platforms. In addition, make sure you tell people that you’d like them to reach out to you.

One participant said: “It was the way my friends rallied around me that helped most.”

2. An empathetic support, identified by 86% of participants, is a person with first-hand experience of loss. Talking about grief with someone who understands it will likely make you feel less alone. This is especially important in today’s world since isolation has dramatically increased rates of loneliness. If you don’t know anyone personally, there are many online communities of bereaved people you can join.

One participant said: “Joining the online support groups were a massive help…it was great to meet other who felt exactly how I felt.”

3. Exercise, identified by 86% of participants, was reported as playing a valuable role in adapting to loss. Exercise can help trigger feelings of control, clarity and focus. It also helps with sleep which grief can disrupt heavily. Most countries allow their citizens to exercise once a day, even during the peak of lockdown.

​Another participant said: “I’d go running all the time​ and be committed to watching my running time improve. It actually changed my mood for the rest of the day…​I was happier and felt more alive.”

While I prepare my findings for publication, I hope this blog has been helpful if you are bereaved or know someone who is experiencing a bereavement. Should you need additional help, we would like to suggest the following resources for extra support:

Compassionate Friends

A charitable organisation of bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents dedicated to the support and care of other bereaved persons.
Helpline: 0345 123 2304 
Northern Ireland helpline: 0288 77 88 016
tcf.org.uk

Cruse Bereavement Care

Provides bereavement support, both face-to-face and over the phone, from trained volunteers across the UK.
0808 808 1677 (Calls to this helpline are free)
cruse.org.uk

This post was written by Ms Ketki “Keya” Prabhu (@kkprabhu), a UCL alumna, with minor comments from Dr Keri Wong (@DrKeriWong).

How do you view grief amidst the pandemic? Please share your thoughts with us at contact@globalcovidstudy.com or tag us on @GlobalC19Study (Twitter) and GlobalC19Study (Instagram). We’d love to hear from you!

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