Experts Weigh in on Grieving in the Time of Coronavirus

We are all experiencing grief in different ways during the coronavirus pandemic. Here's how we can be supporting each other and ourselves as we try to navigate it

pet grief
Photo: Getty

Grief doesn’t look the way it did a few months ago.

I was in the middle of a Zoom call with some friends when I got overwhelmed talking about a friend who passed away amid the coronavirus pandemic, and started to cry. I was immediately, to put it lightly, so uncomfortable. Crying in a room by yourself and being watched through a screen by people is … interesting, to say the least — even if some of those people are your closest friends. I put my hand over the camera so they didn’t have to see me ugly cry à la Kim Kardashian.

They stayed silent for a while, letting me cry it out. My friend Anna broke the silence first: “I wish I could hug you right now.” The green boxes lit up around each face as they expressed their condolences and wishes to be close.

When my friend of 12 years offered me a real hug while on a social distance walk I told her frankly, “I want to, but I can’t. I’m too scared.” So we just kept walking, me wanting comfort and her wishing she could give it.

We’re not used to grieving this way. Growing up, mourning made me uncomfortable, with all of its wakes and hugs and condolences and cemeteries. But what once was morbid, I’m suddenly seeing as essential.

Curious about how this new way of grieving is affecting us all, I spoke with Dr. Kevin Gilliland, a clinical psychologist and member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad, and Dr. Lori Whatley, a clinical psychologist and author of Connected & Engaged, about what grief looks like in the time of coronavirus and the effects it could have on us long-term.

“Grief,” Gilliland tells me on the phone when I ask him to explain it in a nutshell, “tells us that we love somebody and they've become part of our life … It’s the other side of the joy that they’ve brought to our life. It’s normal. It’s natural. That does not mean it’s painless or not incredibly difficult.”

COVID-19 Maps
Confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths worldwide, as of the morning of May 13. Martin Schwartz/PEOPLE

Some losses are complicated, Gilliland says, especially the ones we are experiencing now. Some of us didn’t get the chance to say goodbye or couldn’t see our loved ones in their final days, and so we end up with complicated grief to untangle.

What makes grieving in the time of COVID-19 unique? We are all grieving in some way, shape or form. At this point, we all know someone, even tangentially, who has been impacted by this virus. Not just by physically being infected or knowing someone who was, but through a loss of a job, pay cuts, the postponement of a wedding, the birth of a baby in isolation. “We have had loved ones and coworkers that have passed away, and we've also lost so much in life,” Gilliland says.

Dr. Whatley tells me in an e-mail that this is different from our typical grieving experience because usually “there is immediate expectancy for closure to begin as opposed to the many unknowns that go with COVID-19.”

These extreme circumstances can keep us from talking to our loved ones about our own losses. We tell ourselves it’s not worth it to reach out, that everyone is dealing with something, but Dr. Gilliland says that not reaching out and talking to your friends and family is detrimental to grieving at this time. “At least give them the chance to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ” he advises.

Coronavirus. CDC

Dr. Whatley says that this communication goes both ways. Reach out to your loved ones if you’re in a place to support them. “As humans, we are wired for connection and finding ways to connect and grieve together is essential for our wellbeing,” she says.

Gilliland says grief is “rarely something we do in isolation, and yet we find ourselves in isolation for the betterment of our health,” leaving us with few options to connect. Most of the options, of course, are virtual.

“Being with your community to process grief is best done face to face. If you can't do that, being on the phone is better than texting and emailing, and that's better than posting something on social media. All of those things are better than isolating and just allowing your emotions and thoughts to spin inside.”

Grieving in total isolation will just prolong it. Instead, we need to talk to people we love and try to replicate the process in a socially distanced way. “It's how we move through this,” Gilliland says. “And the people that do well are going to be the people that navigate this virtual community.”

Here are a few tips from Dr. Gilliland for reaching out to your community:

  • Let them know about your loss.
  • Simply ask if they’d be comfortable with you reaching out from time to time as you grieve. It’s as simple as saying: "I know you're going through a lot, but would you mind if I reach out to you if I'm just struggling or can I send a text?"
  • Try not to be dependent on one person, keep in touch with two or three people you’re close with.
  • Simply ask the people around you if they've got some time to talk.
  • Guard against taking it personal if they don't get back to you promptly.
  • If you’re comfortable, share your feelings on social media. Gilliland says that this gives people the chance to respond and reach out, even old friends you’ve not reconnected with in some time.

Here are some tips for how to cultivate a community safely amid the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Start a Meal Train or get a grieving friend a gift card to a local restaurant.
  • Spend time together virtually if possible using FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Zoom or another video chatting platform.
  • Go on a social distance walk with a friend or sit at a safe distance apart in your yard to talk.
  • Ask friends and family via social media to share stories about your loved one. You can even put these memories into a book and keep it to read and revisit, or create a slideshow of your favorite photos of the person you’re grieving.
  • Create new rituals that make you feel loved and comforted.

There’s no right or wrong in the way you grieve right now, but as you navigate your feelings and emotions, Dr. Whatley says that habits and mindfulness are especially helpful. “Doing the daily habits for health like walks, getting sleep and eating clean and staying hydrated. Mindfulness is one of the very best tools to practice during times of grief. During these times of grieving, we want to find ways to nourish ourselves and not leave us depleted.”

Grief doesn’t stop just because we are unable to gather — so maybe next time I won’t cover my camera when I cry in the middle of a Zoom call. I’ll just let my virtual community do their thing.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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