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After COVID-19: A crisis of grief

In the wave of optimism emerging as COVID-19 infections fall in the United States, it’s easy to lose sight of the millions who will suffer for years to come as a result of the pandemic. These are the people who’ve lost a loved one because of the virus. Their grief is complicated, long-lasting and requires attention.

Infection rates of COVID-19 are at an all-time low since the start of the pandemic. Mask mandates are being lifted and people are returning to work in office — small signs that give us hope that we are slowly crawling out of the pandemic. The CDC tracker shows the decrease in new cases from a winter high of 191,320 the week of Jan. 10, to under 10,000 the week of June 12. There is a new sense of freedom as we celebrate those numbers and the wide access and availability of vaccines for all.

While we are hopeful, there is no denying COVID-19 has left a trail of destruction. In the United States alone there have been nearly 600,000 deaths since the virus started in March of 2020. The sheer number of deaths are overwhelming and make it challenging to move on when everyone we know seems to have lost someone. Research shows over 5 million Americans are mourning COVID-19 related deaths. Optimism surrounding the vaccine and transition back to public life has produced hope throughout America, but is also creating an illusion that blinds the country to the great amount of sorrow and depression still present.

Mourning Many Losses  

Roughly 3 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, increasing from the one in ten adults who reported signs from January to June in 2019. As a nation we’ve lost luxuries, routines, flexibility, community and companionship. Not to mention the loss of jobs, homes, food and even classroom instruction for students across the country. For some, daily life will resume to normal but for those who’ve lost a loved one there is no return to what they had prior to the pandemic.

The effects of COVID-19 are long lasting as we are seeing a wave of grief sweep over the nation that we will have to deal with for years to come. What started as a virus outbreak has spiraled into a different type of pandemic – A Pandemic of Grief.

Increased Mental Health Risks 

The grief that so many Americans are experiencing presents public health risks as mental health and wellbeing deteriorates for these individuals. While the general population found the world to be turned upside down from the pandemic, those who walked through personal loss have found their world rocked on an entirely different level. COVID-19 has escalated the potential for complicated grief, which is known as the deep grief felt after the loss of a loved one and that lasts longer than anticipated according to typical social norms. In addition, there is a real condition called broken-hearted syndromethat can happen after intense emotional or physical stress.

The severity of the grief pandemic should not be taken lightly, and everyone needs to be encouraged to consider that all of us are likely mourning in some way. It would be beneficial for each of us to educate ourselves about how we can help those around us in processing loss. We must understand how we can provide comfort and support and explore ways in which we might be able to offer relief to those who are suffering. We know that mourning loss requires time and we can never rush the process — each individual’s journey looks different.

The Need for Support 

Seeking support through community and counsel from people who have either experienced similar loss or are equipped with resources to assist others is important and beneficial in the grieving process. Developing skills and receiving guidance on how to cope with loss can radically improve an individual’s wellbeing. There are many small ways to direct emotion that we can learn from experts.

Churches are a great place to look for these kinds of resources. Most of the time they will offer support groups, specifically for those who are grieving. If there are no current groups in place, there are organizations such as GriefShare that can be incorporated into ministry programs. Above all, remember the critical importance of talking with others and seeking support in grief. No one should experience loss alone, and by traveling alongside others on similar journeys, we can get to a place where the pain and sorrow are not so debilitating that we can’t also look to the future with hope.

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