Estimates indicate that deaths during COVID-19 will leave behind about 16 million grieving family members. This number may be even higher when including those outside of the deceased’s immediate family. This tragic statistic is made worse, considering the restrictions the coronavirus has put on funerals and other grieving rituals which can help the bereaved find closure. Additionally, in the United States 46% of people believe that the restrictions put in place will not help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the negative mental health implications of the restrictions are not helping matters. The extended periods of grief that many families are having to undergo are only being made worse by the lack of ability to mourn their lost loved ones.
Researchers have recently become concerned with the possible increase in what is called Prolonged Grief Disorder. PGD involves a severe grief response characterized by intense yearning for a lost one for an amount of time that is deemed abnormal based on sociocultural contexts, oftentimes when there is a sudden or violent death. Studies show that typically less than 10% of bereaved individuals experience PGD. However, a new study shows that now, more than 30%of bereaved individuals experience PGD or Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder, and this increase is associated with a loved one dying of COVID-19. It has been theorized that the surge of PGD symptoms is related to the inability to grieve traditionally as a result of safety restrictions in place that discourage proper funerals.
This wave of PGD needs to be met with a unified response from mental health professionals. It is important to focus not only on the immediate family members of lost ones, but also focusing on close friends and extended family in need of bereavement treatment. Additionally, since the nature of loss often relates to grief symptoms, more work needs to be done in exploring how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered people’s perception of death and grieving.
Furthermore, the importance of grieving rituals cannot be understated as they can help the bereaved process and accept their loss. One example is the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. This ritual is important, much like other cultural rituals which help not only to accept loss, but to celebrate those who have passed on. Often, finding meaning in death helps bereaved individuals manage grief. A year ago, Day of the Dead celebrations were darkened by the spread of COVID-19 as it continued to spread, and Mexican cemeteries were closed as a result. Those who celebrate the holiday struggled as they were unable to engage with the deceased through their traditions. However, some believe that a small or simple altar at home is enough to connect to their lost loved ones. This act aims to remind the bereaved of the lives their loved one’s led rather than focusing only on their death, a concept that may help those experiencing grief. Finding these alternative methods of grieving could be beneficial to those suffering from PGD.
It’s not only the bereaved and mental health professionals who need to find solutions, but society as a whole needs to change the perspectives on bereavement. There should be greater social acceptance for long-term grief and more support for those who suffer from it. Support and understanding from one’s peers could make an incredible difference in the bereavement process. This can be and has to be achieved through education, specifically by preparing therapists, school counselors, educators and mental health professionals on how to support the bereaved, as well as changing attitudes about death in a world that is experiencing the unimaginable.