Grief on Pandemic Pause

One of the recent, and perhaps unanticipated, trends I’ve witnessed as a grief care provider is how, for some, their grief over a death in their life– a death which usually took place prior to the pandemic– somehow feels as though it has been put on hold. They feel less attuned to their own sense of loss, and detached from emotions which normally accompany the death of someone close. This came up separately in both a grief group I was recently facilitating and in a Zoom session our agency held to support the community. In both cases the individuals said something like: “ever since this pandemic started my grief for my (father, mother, sister, friend, etc.) seems to have diminished.” It is one, among many, possible grief manifestations which may or may not occur during this pandemic.

There has been no research, as far as I know, as to why this is, though together– mourners and myself — have speculated on the cause of what we might call “delayed grief.” One theory is that this pandemic is simply focusing our attentions elsewhere. With the specter of death or severe illness hanging over each of us, our concerns have become more immediate and about ourselves, our family and friends, and everyone’s survival. While the death we’ve been mourning is still very important, we are the ones now — the living– who are under threat.

We are also bombarded daily with the horror stories about the way victims of this pandemic are dying, so there is also a relativism which may be a factor. At least, for some, there was the opportunity to say “good bye”, to spend time with the person who died, that their death maybe was not as lonely as those dying from the novel coronavirus. So, when we read about how families are forcibly separated once the victim enters the hospital, perhaps never to see each other again, is an emotional pain which seems to us relatively worse than what we may have endured when our own person died. Some have discussed the added “relief” that the person passed away before the pandemic began, given how much more worried they would be now about that person given the pandemic, particularly if they had a condition which would have made them more vulnerable, and how much worse the circumstances may potentially be for someone dying at this time rather than before.

Lastly, fear. Fear is constantly operating in the background and can haunt us daily. If we are living with varying levels of fear, this also will distract us and keep us from thinking about the grief, longing, or mourning we would normally be experiencing at this moment. There are markers throughout each day reminding us of the immediate threat– putting on a mask, under-stocked supplies at the grocery store, social distancing, lockdown, Zoom meetings, the news, financial trauma, and so much more. Any given day can contain a dozen reminders that we are at war and trying to survive. If almost every action we take is by definition a fear response to contracting the disease or mitigating its broader impacts, then again our grief would only naturally become displaced because our attention is forced away from grief and more towards what we are more immediately fearing.

So, if you are grieving someone in your life, but have come to realize that something about that grief has shifted during this pandemic, then know you are not alone. There are others who also feel that this new danger has changed their grief, at least temporarily. Anecdotally speaking, I would guess that around 20 percent are experiencing a significant shift in the nature of their grief during the pandemic. Some have even said that they have completely forgotten about it altogether.

For those who feel that their sense of mourning has been displaced, what happens to that grief as the pandemic potentially becomes prolonged for months, or longer? That is a big unanswered question right now. The unprecedented nature of the situation, its duration, and a multitude of other factors will shape what happens. Certainly our grief shifts and changes over time, so depending on how long the pandemic remains a factor in delaying our grief, when we come out the other side, our grief may look and feel different than it did before the pandemic started. One should not necessarily expect to take up where one left off. If our grief has been put on hold, it may be of some service to find an opportunity to process, talk about, and share that not uncommon experience. We are in a unique moment and it’s only natural to expect that our responses will also be new and sui generis to the circumstance. Having our grief put on pause is for some a normal response to an abnormal situation.