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  • Patricia Faust

Experiencing Grief in the Time of COVID


My mother died last week. She was 91 and lived her life on her terms until the end. She certainly gave us a gift. In the midst of grieving I took a serious look at all of the families, friends and loved ones who have experienced the catastrophic loss of their loved ones. And so, this blog takes a look at the huge losses everyone around the world are experiencing due to COVID-19.

We are on an emotional rollercoaster this year. As the year progresses, we are discovering that our lives have changed and might not ever see the old normal that we grew up with. COVID-19 is causing us to confront multiple types of grief. Our new reality is punctuated by grief and loss.

The disruptions in our normal routines and rhythms of everyday life contribute to lingering unease and sadness. We are mourning for the loss of over 210,000 American lives and find ourselves also mourning the loss of normalcy. Work at home, home schooling, work on mundane routines day after day, have taken any semblance of normalcy away from us. There is no end in sight, and we continue to experience the fear that this is our new normal.

The Many Types of Losses Associated with COVID 19

The intense grief that people who have lost loved ones to this pandemic is palpable. Even if we have not been touched by the death of a loved one, we can be grieving the loss of our career, our livelihood. Now, through no fault of our own, we cannot support our family or possibly not be able to put food on the table. We grieve that loss of certainty and security. Here is a list of losses associated with COVID 19:

Job loss

Loss of safety

Worry about loved ones

Social distancing, quarantine, and feelings of isolation

Changes in daily habits and routines

Special plans and events that have been cancelled

Clashes with family members over how to protect yourself

Worries about how to pay rent, utilities, and other bills

Sadness over how the pandemic will affect the world

Fears for the future

Grief After a COVID Death

The importance of social connection is more evident with the loss of a loved one to COVID. Under normal circumstances, we turn to our group – our family, our friends – for support. We cry together, we laugh together, and we mourn together. But the continual threat of exposure to the virus still keeps us apart. We don’t get to experience the human connection that we desperately need.

Being isolated from our loved one while they are dying raises many types of emotions. Not being there with our loved one to say our last goodbyes and expressions of love, makes it almost incomprehensible to understand the emotional impact. The traditional wakes and celebrations of life after the funeral are modified by social distancing and wearing masks. There can be no hugs of comfort and solace. Family traditions are left behind, and overall grief is left to languish.

The Neuroscience of Grief

We have just observed how the emotions of grief flood the entire experience. Let’s take a look at what is going on behind the scenes in our brain and body.

When we have bonded and feel connected to a loved one, the brain produces the body’s feel good hormones: dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. When we suffer a loss, there is an immediate drop in the feel-good chemicals and a rise in stress-chemicals, such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These chemicals engage the fight, flight, or freeze response. Stress cortisol leads to a cascade of physical, emotional, and mental symptoms. When stress cortisol is at its highest, it is common to feel numb, cut-off, and disconnected.

As the initial shock of loss subsides, we begin to feel the pain. Through fMRI imaging, it has been discovered that these parts of the brain get activated in loss: Periaqueductal gray, the Anterior Cingulate, the Nucleus Accumbens, and the Somatosensory Cortices. Identifying these different parts of the brain probably won’t mean anything to you. That’s okay because I wanted you to understand that there are many areas of the brain associated with loss. These are the same areas of the brain responsible for the separation anxiety experienced by an infant and are associated with crying and yearning for reconnection. If you have babysat for a grandchild and you can’t seem to comfort them after their parents leave, you now understand how involved the brain is in this reaction. Furthermore, these are the same areas of the brain associated with pain. Grief can physically hurt.

fMRI studies also reveal the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal lobes, light up when we reflect on the stories, memories and associations we have with our loved ones. The amygdala is ‘state-dependent’ which means that when you feel sad you are more likely to remember other times that you felt sad.

It is important to remember that the amygdala (emotional center of the brain) is involved in painful emotions of fear, anger, and sadness. But it is also involved in the positive emotions of happiness, pleasure and joy. We have the power to modify the emotional experience by engaging our prefrontal cortex (planning, decision-making, rational thinking) area of the brain. Studies have indicated that we engage our prefrontal cortex when we put our memories and reflections into words. Engaging the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala will process loving, tender memories of our loved ones. Over time, these reflections can build a bridge allowing us to create sustained connections with people we have lost.

Resolving Grief

Often grief resolves not from letting go or moving on but rather finding a way to sustain as loving connection with people we have lost. It is essential to acknowledge the sad and painful aspects of the death of a loved one; however, we must also reflect on the loving and tender parts of the relationship.

Grief is a normal response to loss, but COVID has upended many aspects of the normal grieving process. Whether you are coping with a job loss, facing fear over scarcity, loneliness, financial instability, or a general sense of anxiety about COVID, the emotional upheaval caused by coronavirus may trigger feelings of grief, and loss. Lean on your social support system, even if that is a virtual connection. Give yourself permission to mourn, take good care of yourself, and treat yourself and others with kindness during this difficult time.

References:

Cherry, K. (August 7, 2020). Understanding grief in the age of COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellmind.com/understanding-grief-in-the-age-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-4801931

Schwartz, A. (March 8, 2016). Grief, grit, and grace. Retrieved from: https://drarielleschwartz.com/grief-grit-and-grace-dr-arielle-schwartz/#.X330RpNKiEs

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