Pandemic Makes Grieving More Complicated

Grieving for a loved one who has died is one of those fundamental human experiences that is both universal to all and unique to each. How we experience grief – from the emotions we feel to how long we grieve and what that looks like to us – is as individual as our fingerprint. It’s shaped not only by the circumstances of the death and our relationship to the deceased, but also by cultural, spiritual, biological, and even genetic factors. 

Yet for all the individual differences in how we process grief, one commonality persists: the holidays make it harder. Family memories are often made around holidays or other milestone celebrations, and these dates can accentuate our loss and sharpen the pain of what we no longer have. 

Holidays a ‘Hard Reminder’ 

“As we’re heading into the holidays, it’s important for us to acknowledge that even if some people may be able to come together, those who have been important in their lives will not be with them,” said trauma specialist Melissa Brymer, Ph.D., Psy.D. in a recent workshop at COVID Support VT. The virtual session focused on skills for psychological recovery and included a discussion of the complications of grief during Covid. “The holidays will be a hard reminder of the loss.”

In the U.S. alone, 801,000 people have died from Covid since the pandemic began. Research published last year suggests an average of nine close loved ones are left behind for every person who dies. Close loved ones were defined as the spouse, grandparents, parents, siblings, children, or grandchildren of the deceased. That means more than 7.2 million Americans are grieving the loss of a close loved one as a direct result of Covid. More than 140,000 children have lost a primary or secondary caregiver. The losses have disproportionately affected BIPOC, Latinx and Native American communities, which have historically been marginalized and have less access to healthcare.

“There is a lot of suffering that people aren’t even aware of,” says Brymer. “It’s not just the trauma and stress of the pandemic, it’s the grief.”

Complex Grief

The nature of Covid makes grief more complex. Many people were unable to be with their loved ones when they died due to pandemic restrictions on visitation. Heart-wrenching stories of people saying their final good-byes to a wife, mother, or grandfather by video filled the internet. Covid-related deaths may have been sudden or unexpected, which increases the trauma. People may feel guilt or shame around one’s own role – real or imagined – in the person getting sick. Feelings of anger or frustration may be more common in the charged political environment of Covid. Inequalities in access to care have compounded health disparities, with historically marginalized communities bearing the brunt. 

On top of all that, many of the usual rituals that we use to comfort ourselves after the death of a loved one – gathering with family, holding space together, sharing in a memorial ceremony – have been inaccessible. “The pandemic hasn’t allowed every family to have those goodbye rituals that are so important to our healing,” Brymer says.

For all of these reasons, grieving during Covid, whether or not one’s loved one died of Covid or something else, can fall into the category of what psychiatrists call “complicated grief,” meaning it can be prolonged or even disabling.

In thinking about how we as a society recover psychologically from the pandemic, Brymer says we need to consider the impact of widespread grief. Resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity, is central to recovery from trauma, yet “doesn’t quite work when we’re dealing with grief,” Brymer said. “If my sibling died, or my mom or dad or close friend died – we don’t bounce back from that death. We make meaning, we learn to honor that person, and we learn to adjust. But the course of recovery from grief is different from other traumas. There’s a permanency to it.”

Inviting In Grief

Coping with grief around the holidays – or anytime – starts with letting yourself be with it. If it’s not going away, why not invite it in? Have a cup of tea with it. Snuggle up in your favorite chair with it. Take a walk with your grief. Allow whatever feelings arise to just be. Don’t judge them or try to change them. Notice them, and let them be. Honor the memories that arise of your loved one and allow them to evoke what emotions they will. Notice them, and let them be.

If you know someone who’s hurting, reach out gently. Acknowledge their loss. Let them know you’re available. Invite them to join your gathering if that feels appropriate, or offer to go for a walk or have coffee. Sometimes a specific offer – “how about I bring you dinner tomorrow night?” — may be more easy to reply to than a more general “how can I help?” 

It’s important at this time of year to check in a little more often with a family member who may be struggling, Brymer says. “Acknowledge when you’re making plans that it isn’t going to be holidays as usual. Help folks think through what else they need.

Trauma Specialist’s Strategies for Families in Grief

Brymer outlined a set of practical strategies for families in coping with grief.

  • Have many conversations. Allow family members to share in their own way. Include racial and social justice impact in the conversations.
  • Check in regularly. Find the time. Ask. Be open to listening deeply.
  • Validate feelings.
  • Discuss what is being done to keep people safe.
  • Provide routine and structure.
  • Provide extra time, attention, patience, love, and reassurance.
  • Model and practice self-care for children.

Learn More and Find Grief Resources

Watch the Zoom video of Melissa Brymer’s workshop on Skills for Psychological Training. (Section on grief begins at 36:50.)

Read Grief Is Never Easy, but During the Holidays, It’s Especially Tough—Here’s How Others Got Through It from

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has extensive resources and information on Childhood Traumatic Grief.

For more advice on helping children who are grieving, see Childhood Grief: When to Seek Additional Help from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For Professionals, from the American Psychological Association: Helping patients cope with COVID-19 grief. 

Find more resources on grief and loss during Covid from the Centers for Disease Control.

Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (in Vermont) for assistance.

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at

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Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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