America’s Covid-19 grief and bereavement crisis, explained

It’s been nearly a year since Julie Horowitz-Jackson’s mother, Arlene, died of Covid-19 in a nursing facility in Philadelphia. “What hit me recently is that the world is opening back up, and my mom’s still dead,” Horowitz-Jackson says.

At this point in the Covid-19 pandemic, as vaccines get rolled out in the United States and around the globe, there is a glimmer of hope that life will safely start shifting back to “normal” in the coming months. But so many people, like Horowitz-Jackson, are still working through their grief, and it won’t just disappear when the virus does. Horowitz-Jackson, 51, says she was coping well with the loss of her mom until recently, when, in Chicago, where she lives, she saw many people out and about, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in large crowds. “I get angry,” she says. “I get angry that people aren’t taking it seriously.”

With over 550,000 reported Covid-19 deaths in the US and 2.8 million worldwide, a massive grief crisis is upon us — with large, unaddressed mental health and economic implications.

“For a large share of people, these [losses] lead to bouts of prolonged grief disorder and depression,” says Ashton Verdery, a Penn State sociologist who studies the societal costs of bereavement. “But also they have huge impacts on their finances, on their employment, on their relationships, and on all kinds of aspects of thriving in the world.”

And new research here provides a broad window onto the lasting scope of our national tragedy.

“These losses that are felt now will be felt for some time to come — even individuals who aren’t born yet will potentially be missing these relatives who might have been alive during their formative years,” says Mallika Snyder, a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley who is also working on estimates with colleagues of the “excess bereavement” felt in the United States and other countries this year.

There’s no exact figure on the amount of “excess bereavement,” but it’s likely very large, and very devastating.

So many more people are grieving this year than normal

Lately, I’ve been trying to understand the long-term consequences of the Covid-related death — the blank spaces and shadows it leaves behind. Death is not a one-dimensional statistic. It ripples across time, leaving holes in people’s present and future where their loved ones would have been. So, so many people are sensing these holes in their lives right now.

Recently, Verdery and colleagues estimated that, roughly, every person who dies from Covid-19 in the United States leaves nine grieving people behind. Since more than 550,000 people have died of Covid-19 here, then there are nearly 5 million people who’ve suffered the loss of someone close to them.

Verdery’s work is based on a statistical model of the personal connections people typically have. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collects data on who is dying of Covid-19, but not the survivors they leave behind.

That said, Verdery says his team’s work suggests a huge swath of people are dealing with loss. “Each death [regardless of their age at death] is going to leave a 4-year-old, a 50-year-old, a 60-year-old, a 10-year-old bereaved, on average,” he says.

And researchers know from past disasters that those losses can leave a lasting mark.

Meghan Zacher, a sociology researcher at Brown, has recently re-analyzed some mental health and wellness data collected from survivors of Hurricane Katrina, in an attempt to predict some of the long-term consequences of the pandemic. “Katrina and Covid are different in really important ways,” she stresses. “This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. But there really isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison to the pandemic, at least in modern history.”

She and her co-authors found that the experience of losing a relative or a friend during the storm and its aftermath had the “largest effects on mental and physical health, one year after the storm,” she says. “Also things like fearing for your loved ones’ safety had sizable impacts, as did unmet medical needs. And those are all things that people have experienced during the pandemic.”

Many people experiencing loss from death could benefit from counseling. Covid-19 swells their numbers.

The loss of a loved one is really hard, and not everyone copes in the same way. But there’s some research into the broad buckets of need grieving people fall into. And that helps us understand the immediate impact this bereavement crisis is having in the country — and around the world.

Survey research suggests that, at least in Western contexts, around 60 percent of people dealing with a loss cope by relying on friends and family to support them. “They handle it in their own way,” says Catriona Mayland, a physician and researcher at the University of Sheffield who studies end-of-life issues. It’s not necessarily easy for this group to deal with loss. But they manage.

A further 30 percent might need some more structured help. “So that might be group bereavement support from a faith-based or community-based group,” Mayland says.

And then around 10 percent of those who lose someone close to them experience symptoms qualifying them for a prolonged grief disorder, a diagnosis that soon will be included in the DSM (the psychology/psychiatry official diagnostic manual).

The diagnosis recognizes that sometimes grief rises to the level of severely interfering with the normal function of life, and that people experiencing prolonged grief could benefit from mental health care.

That 10 percent figure is both small and large. It means that, yes, most people cope with loss in their own time. But it’s also not uncommon for someone to need extra help.

And then consider the Covid-19 pandemic. Again, there could be 5 million people grieving losses due to the pandemic. If 10 percent of those people qualify for this diagnosis, that’s half a million people.

There’s even some limited research from the Netherlands suggesting losses due to Covid-19 are harder to take, resulting in more grief, compared to deaths from more typical natural causes.

Talking with people who have experienced loss, it’s easy to see why. Horowitz-Jackson’s family is Jewish, and it’s custom for the family and surrounding community of the deceased to hold a week-long open house “shiva” period, where there’s near-constant company in the home.

“Shiva Zoom was about the worst thing I’ve ever experienced,” she says. Particularly, she remembers how her father, hard of hearing, struggled with the technology. “The ritual of seeing each other and leaning on one another,” she says, just couldn’t be facilitated as well over the internet.

Mayland worries, too, that “there actually could be an upward shift” in the number of people needing more than informal support after a loss, since due to the social distancing restrictions of the pandemic, “normal support” from family and friends may be limited.

Which is all to say: More people than usual may need support to deal with their loss.

Bereavement can impact health and well-being differently at different ages

A person older than 65 who loses a spouse has a “shockingly elevated” increased risk of dying over the next year, Verdery says — estimates range from 15 to 30 percent higher risk of dying. There are many reasons: Our loved ones take care of us when we’re sick, they prod us to get checked out by a doctor, they provide emotional and sometimes financial support. When a loved one gets taken out of the picture, so many cracks can form in the foundations of our lives.

There is, quite literally, a condition called “broken heart syndrome,” or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It’s when, in reaction to a sudden surge in stress, the heart’s left ventricle weakens.

The experience of loss can be particularly impactful on the trajectory of a life when it comes to young people: When a person under the age of 18 loses a parent, they become less likely to finish high school or college. “Because we know that education is so strongly linked to all manner of life course outcomes — like involvement in the prison system, socioeconomic status in adulthood, unemployment spells, early pregnancy, all sorts of stuff — this does suggest that some of these bereavement events might be really derailing,” Verdery says.

The impact of these deaths is so powerful that bereavement is thought to be a source of racial disparities in health and education in America. By age 20, a Black child is twice as likely to experience the death of a mother and 50 percent more likely to experience the death of a father. The pandemic is likely to make this trend worse — as we know Covid-19 has been taking minorities at younger ages than white people dying from it.

And American society doesn’t do well to protect these grieving kids. It’s estimated that less than 50 percent of children who experience the loss of a parent receive Social Security survivors benefits (which they may be entitled to). “This is one of the most staggering statistics that I found,” Verdery says. “The kids are already dealing with so much. And we’re not even getting them in touch with the benefits they’re entitled to.”

What should we do about this?

After experiencing the loss of her child, Joyal Mulheron, a former adviser to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, felt the extreme, life-altering pain bereavement can bring. “I basically drove to work every day for 18 months and cried to and from work,” she says. And it wasn’t just her personal pain that was horrible — she also realized that society often overlooks bereavement issues.

Now Mulheron runs Evermore, a bereavement-focused nonprofit, and hopes the pandemic will be a wake-up call for the country to start paying closer attention to the societal strain bereavement puts on the country. “The challenge is no one is thinking about it as an event that can change the course of an individual’s life,” she says.

For instance, she points out that “bereavement is not part of the FMLA” — the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides time off for those caring for sick family members, but not to cope with their loss. She calls for better housing protections for those who lose financial support after losing a loved one, more transparent funeral pricing, and better Social Security assistance for kids who lose parents.

She also simply would like to see this issue be studied more thoroughly. “We’ve not had the data to really contextualize this,” Mulheron says. “We’ve really thought of a death event as a personal tragedy, rather than a family or a community experience.” At the very least, Mulheron would like to see the White House establish an Office of Bereavement Care, to set a national agenda on this issue.

On a smaller scale, Mayland, the physician who studies end-of-life issues, says it can be helpful just to find spaces to talk about grief, and more helpful still if friends and family reach out with an ear to listen. “Sometimes it’s therapeutic to be able to tell a story,” she says.

“Each time I talk about it, I feel like I’m honoring her memory,” Horowitz-Jackson, the Chicago woman who lost her mother, says.

And don’t forget, Mayland stresses, “Individual kindness can have an impact. It often is the small things that actually can make a difference.”

If you’re reading this, having lost someone to Covid-19, know that you are not alone. So many people are experiencing loss in the country right now, and the pain might not go away when life appears to return to normal.

For some additional resources on bereavement, check out Refuge in Grief, a website and online community with worksheets and courses for processing grief. And you can read more about therapies designed to help people with complicated grief here.

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