The mental health impact of grieving because of COVID-19

Meditation and journaling your experience are two ways to help you manage some of the anxiety, stress, and anger that you may be feeling after losing a loved one.

The loss of a family member affects how you feel, behave, and think, especially when it happens under extreme situations like the COVID-19 health crisis.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “grief is a strong, sometimes overwhelming emotion for people, regardless of whether their sadness stems from the loss of a loved one or a terminal diagnosis they or someone they love have received.”

It is a widespread belief that those grieving, which can last for months or years, go through a sequential appearance of specific affective, emotional states; shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

In this sense, a study published on the Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy Journal, and authored by Dr. Alain Sauteraud, found that “emotional states linked to grief are variable and non-specific (and) these affective states often overlap, and may subside and return spontaneously in a different order, thus refuting the notion of stage theory.”

How grief shows up in your body

You may experience physical reactions, including the following:

  • Headaches
  • Trembling or shakiness
  • Shortness of breath (call your doctor)
  • Nausea
  • Muscle weakness
  • Stomach pain
  • Less appetite
  • Chest pain (call your doctor)
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Dry mouth

According to a study led by Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice University, found that “depression is linked to higher levels of inflammation, and those who lose a spouse are at considerably higher risk of major depression, heart attack, stroke, and premature mortality.”

Another research published entitled Bereavement: Effects on immunity and risk of disease. Stress and immunity, and authored to GD Adrianopoulos, concluded that “in addition to the increase in morbidity and mortality associated with bereavement in older adults, particularly in the case of the unexpected death, bereavement has been shown to have a number of adverse effects on immunity.”

Furthermore, another study suggests the relationship between impaired immune function and depression in women experiencing the stress of grief, as noted on Bereavement, depression, and immune function, led by Sidney Zisook, M.D., a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine.

A loss of a loved one is a highly stressful event that can put you at excess risk of mortality. The psychological stress associated with grief can enhance inflammation and lower heart rate variability.

What is complicated or traumatic grief?

Grief is part of life.

However, those who are grieving because of COVID-19 may experience a different kind of grief known as complicated or traumatic grief, which can disrupt the typical process of having a loss.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the United States (SAMHSA), “complicated or traumatic grief is grief that does not end and does not help you make progress toward getting back to your usual activities and routine.”

This mental condition happens to about 7% of those who are grieving and is marked by an inability to think of anything but the loss, excessive avoidance of any reminders, or even thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

The source states that, for most, these intense feelings will lessen gradually after six months.

However, some may not experience any reduction of their pain over months or maybe years to come. These may become more intense.

Here are some of the symptoms of complicated or traumatic grief:

  • Unable to enjoy life or remember joyful times with your loved one
  • Avoiding memories or reminders of the person you lost
  • Distrust of others
  • Unable to concentrate on your regular tasks
  • Bitterness and envy towards others not affected by grief
  • Feeling angry
  • Loneliness
  • Constant negative memories that involve your loved one
  • Nightmares or intrusive negative thoughts

If you feel overwhelmed about these feelings, you may need to ask for a professional counselor to help you cope and begin a mental healing process.

The mental health aspect of grieving shows as emptiness, a sense of being unable to feel joy or sadness, nightmares, withdraw socially, and not willing to engage your usual activities.

According to a study by psychologists at the University of Liverpool, “traumatic life events are the biggest cause of anxiety and depression, but how a person thinks about these events determines the level of stress they experience.”

These types of events may lead to another mental health issue: rumination.

Rumination

A Harvard study published on the Behaviour Research and Therapy suggests that rumination has a transdiagnostic factor in depression and anxiety.

Rumination is excessive and intrusive thoughts about negative experiences and feelings. It may predict general distress and symptoms of depression, posttraumatic stress, and complicated grief.

“In adults, baseline depression predicted increases in anxiety and baseline anxiety predicted increases in depression; rumination fully mediated both of these associations. These findings highlight the importance of targeting rumination in transdiagnostic treatment approaches for emotional disorders.”

Rumination may be reduced through therapy, but the key is to understand the pathways through which it contributes to the development and permanence of mental health problems that follow grief.

This information is helpful to increase the effectiveness of professional therapy for grieving that shows high levels of rumination and complicated/traumatic grief following a loss because of COVID-19.

Coping With Grief

You are not alone. Millions of people are also finding ways to cope with the loss of a loved one because of COVID-19.

Your feelings of shock and anger are valid. Regret and sadness are common, and not being present at a service for that person you cared about surely adds up to your disbelief.

If you are uncertain about how to manage this situation, here are some tips that may help.

  • Take time for yourself

Taking it one day at a time might be a good starting point to work through your loss. Getting to an acceptance stage may come in the short term if you find a way to keep the good memories and the joy that you experienced with that significant one.

  • Self-caring

After an unexpected death and the grief process, self-caring can feel like a hard task. Basic and routine habits like eating, brushing your teeth, and taking a shower may just not be a priority right now.

Make sure that your practice mindfulness about this and focus on taking good care of yourself. Sleep and eat well and try to rest as usual.

  • Reach out to other people

You might be tempted to shut off and isolate yourself from everybody.

COVID-19 has also impacted the way people grief. Standard grief support systems, like funeral services that people rely on after a loss is not permitted as per the Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discourage any event of 10 or more people.

Reach out to family and friends, via phone or virtually, to revive joyful memories and experiences with your lost loved one. Online support groups can also help you stay connected and empathize with others who are dealing with a similar situation.

  • Explore other coping techniques

There are other coping techniques if you feel that you can handle it on your own.

Meditation and journaling your experience are two ways to help you manage some of the anxiety, stress, and anger that you may be feeling after losing a loved one.

Expressive writing your experience as the global pandemic still unfolds might be a good idea for you to reflect on the situation accurately.

  • Find professional counseling support

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illnesses are common in the United States. Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (46.6 million in 2017).

If you are still having issues with handling grief, complicated or traumatic grief, or rumination, maybe it’s time to speak to a professional counselor.