Pandemic grief isn’t just for people who lost a loved one

People visit the ‘In America: Remember’ public art installation near the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The installation commemorates all the Americans who have died due to COVID-19, a concept by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, includes more than 650,000 small plastic flags, some with personal messages to those who have died, planted in 20 acres of the National Mall. Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The United States surpassed 800,000 COVID-19 deaths in mid-December, a staggering figure that reveals, behind it, another: Each of those people left behind friends, family, and loved ones who mourn their loss. And even people who haven’t lost someone to COVID-19 may experience a pervasive sense of grief—a kind of collective mourning for everything that’s been lost over the last two years.

“When we think of grief, the first thing that comes to mind is bereavement,” says Elizabeth A. Bachen, psychology professor at Mills College. Northeastern announced a merger with the Oakland, California-based college earlier this year that will establish Mills College at Northeastern University in July 2022.

“We grieve for lots of reasons, though, and we’re seeing now grief in that broader sense,” she says. “We’ve all experienced grief in some shape as the result of this pandemic.”

Elizabeth A. Bachen is a professor of psychology at Mills College. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

Bachen, who leads the Mills Laboratory of Psychology and Health, says that grief may manifest in myriad ways. In addition to grieving the death of a loved one, a person with so-called long COVID might grieve the loss of their sense of smell or taste, or a general loss of feeling well and healthy; for people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, it may be grief over that sense of security and safety.

“The predictability of our lives and our normal routines have been disrupted, and there’s uncertainty about what will happen next,” she says. “The nation and the world are collectively grieving.”

Countries have gone through periods of collective grief before, Bachen notes, including during times of war or other tragedies. “But this is different because it’s ongoing and far-reaching. It’s hard to define a beginning or an end.”

The first step toward dealing with grief, Bachen says, is to acknowledge it. That small act can bring people together to process a shared experience and begin to heal from it. When possible, gathering in small community groups to volunteer with a project related to the source of the grief can also help.

For example, Bachen recalls her own community banding together to create a memorial for the victims of the disastrous Oakland Hills fire of 1991. A small group of volunteers created a “tree of lights” and even started a neighborhood newspaper as ways to express and process their loss. “It’s an opportunity to share what you’re feeling and an opportunity to give back,” she says.

The pandemic complicated this process, though. Early on, public health officials advised people not to gather in groups of any kind and to remain at least six feet away from each other, in order to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. As scientists have learned more about the virus and the disease—and as vaccines have become widely available in the U.S.—public health guidelines have changed and adapted as well. But, Bachen says, we’re all still navigating this environment, and it can still feel fraught.

“Having to quarantine and keep away from people is a stressor in its own right; isolation is stressful for us,” she says. “On top of that, the pandemic deprived us of access to one of the most powerful coping resources: social support.”

People found ways to connect nonetheless, over video calls or from a distance. But many who lost loved ones couldn’t hold their hand or say goodbye, nor attend the funeral in person—an added layer of loss.

For those people, the ones who are mourning the loss of a person in their lives, the end of the year can be particularly challenging, even in a normal year. In their festive merriment and spirit of gathering, the holidays can also inadvertently serve to highlight the people missing around a table, the voices missing from holiday songs.

“Often we have these expectations of what the holidays should look like, and it usually involves gatherings and joy and celebration,” Bachen says. “If we’re grieving, there’s a collision between our fears and emotions, and what society expects of us out of the holidays.”

She recommends compassion, instead—a kind of letting ourselves off the hook when that collision seems imminent. “It’s OK to skip the holidays, to take care of yourself and to take time out to grieve,” Bachen says. “We have to let those feelings happen as they flow.”

For students at Northeastern confronting grief, University Health Counseling Services offers a raft of resources. The office has walk-in hours for mental health support Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with additional hours on Tuesday and Thursday: 5 to 7:30 p.m.

This spring, UHCS will again offer a grief and loss support group that meets from 3 to 4 p.m. on Mondays. Find@Northeastern also offers immediate mental health support to full-time students 24/7. Through the service, students also have free access to a leading mindfulness meditation app, Headspace.

Additionally, there are several student groups focused on mental health: Active Minds, Lean On Me, and Behind the Smile.

The most important thing, Bachen says, is just to start by acknowledging when we’re grieving. After that, though, it’s a process that takes time to work through.

“Grief is worse when you know you feel bad, but don’t know why—maybe it’s just this general feeling that something is off, but you haven’t named it grief yet. Once you do, grief has to be processed, and it takes time. It doesn’t just go away. But this might be a time to acknowledge this collective grief, and take comfort in knowing you’re not alone.”

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