Anybody have a map? Navigating grief during a global pandemic

By Hannah Smith, Feb. 1, 2022

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, nearly 900,000 deaths have been recorded in the United States alone and it is estimated that nearly every COVID-19 death leaves an average of nine individuals grieving. Though the vaccines and booster doses are becoming approved for all ages, the future of this pandemic is still unclear. With the thousands of people left grieving those lost to COVID-19, the idea of a future without their loved ones seems bleak. The nature of the pandemic’s protocols has left individuals struggling to cope with the loss of friends and family members. 

With so many COVID-19 deaths impacting so many people, more and more individuals are having to go through the grieving process. Grief can take time to overcome depending on the closeness to the deceased. 

According to psychologist, Maarten C. Eisma, Prolonged Grief Disorder is “characterized by distressing and disabling yearning for the deceased and/or preoccupation with the deceased, accompanied by anger, guilt, and other symptoms indicative of intense emotional pain experienced for at least six months after the loss.”  

The inability to be there for a loved one while they passed has only become more common with the pandemic, leaving more and more people vulnerable to developing Prolonged Grief Disorder. 

Since Prolonged Grief Disorder was recognized formally in 2013, its relatively “new” status makes it unknown whether the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to an increase in Prolonged Grief Disorder diagnoses. However, based on research of other natural disasters with high death tolls, it has been observed that individuals were more likely to develop Prolonged Grief Disorder symptoms. Since the pandemic is quickly exceeding the death toll of other disasters recorded, it is predicted that there will be an increase in Prolonged Grief Disorder diagnoses.  

 According to psychologist, Alexander H. Jordan, The most intense feelings of grief are often abated a few months after a loss with most individuals being able to look back fondly on the memory of the deceased rather than with intense longing after a year. This process is common for most people if they are able to proceed with the typical rites and rituals after the loss of a loved one, but with the new disruptors in the grieving process is neglected or altered. 

For those who suffer from Prolonged Grief Disorder, the symptoms of grief continue to grow and interfere with their daily life until they can no longer move past the death.  Prolonged Grief Disorder more commonly occurs when an individual’s death was unexpected or the normal bereavement process was delayed or disturbed. Currently, many individuals have had to say goodbye to their loved ones through screens or attend a funeral through Zoom. These disruptions to the normal bereavement process makes it difficult for individuals to accept death and more likely to suffer from Prolonged Grief Disorder.  

Though I have not personally lost anyone to COVID-19, I know what it’s like to lose a loved one and to not have been there for them when it happened. Not being with a loved one before they pass makes it harder to come to terms with their death. I denied that they were really gone and would go about my day until something so small reminded me that they were really gone and that was when I would finally break down and cry. I then became angry at myself. I was constantly thinking about what could have been different if I was there for them. Eventually, I came to terms with their absence and I’ve found ways to honor their memory that make me feel happy rather than feeling the pain I felt when they first passed.  

Death is never easy to prepare for and no one wants to accept the fact that a loved one is dying but being prepared for death may help you prepare for the grieving process. It is important to allow yourself the time to grieve but also recognize when your grief is interfering with your day-to-day life. Prolonged Grief Disorder affects individuals long after a loss and can be identified through continuous “if-only” thoughts, disrupted eating and sleeping habits and difficulty regulating emotions.  

For college students, the signs of Prolonged Grief Disorder can also include a lack of motivation, poor grades and potentially dropping out of school, since the stress of both school and grief can take a toll on them. When the emotional pain begins to affect someone physically, that is the time for them to talk with loved ones and professionals to determine if their grief is prolonged.  

This pandemic has brought everyone to come to terms with death whether they were ready or not, so just remember that the pain that comes with grief and death are natural, but when the emotional pain begins to affect someone physically, that is the time for them to talk to loved ones and professionals. Things can and will get better, even if someone needs help getting there. 

To learn more about the signs of Prolonged Grief Disorder and for bereavement resources, visit the Center for Prolonged Grief’s website. 

To find help on campus, visit Counseling and Psychological Services. 


 Feature image courtesy of Kelly Sikkema. 


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