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Wave of delayed grief likely as pandemic ebbs

Easing of restrictions will be hard on those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, says U of A researcher who offers coping strategies to help yourself and others.
U of A researcher says delayed grief will continue to happen as pandemic restrictions ease. Photo submitted.

As pandemic restrictions have eased, many of those who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 are experiencing the pain all over again, University of Alberta researcher Donna Wilson believes.

“We are seeing delayed grieving because of COVID,” said Wilson, a professor with the U of A's Faculty of Nursing who studies aging, death and grief.

With pandemic deaths reduced to lists of anonymous statistics and people unable to visit their loved ones’ deathbeds or hold funerals, Wilson said, grief will be freshly triggered now that people return to more normal lives and start to grapple with their experiences.

“For the last 18 months we haven’t had the grieving rituals which help us manage our grief. Grief is still there and at some point, it has to come out," she said. "Anyone who had a loved one die of COVID experienced a sudden loss, and those unexpected deaths are often the hardest.”

The impact of grief triggers

Wilson and her co-authors reviewed existing research on grief triggers—anything that is a reminder of a lost loved one—and found they can make the mourning process more difficult. Christmas, anniversaries or birthdays are examples.

“If people drive past the nursing home where their loved one was, a restaurant where they celebrated a special occasion or attended a family gathering, they are going to start having significant waves of grief, because now the triggers are out there.”

These waves of grief, which often last two years or more, can affect the person’s ability to function normally—for example, causing momentary lapses of attention that can lead to dangerous situations like distracted driving.

“Grief triggers can really impact how people get on with their lives and do their daily work,” Wilson said, noting the triggers can also lead to permanent grief, which often requires professional help.

Wilson and her co-investigators found only six research papers on grief triggers published over a span of 20 years—a sign that the topic is under-researched, she said, along with bereavement grief in general.

“We haven’t recognized that grief is a very common and significant health and well-being concern,” she said. “The pandemic should be a wake-up call about how people are grieving around us.”

Coping with grief

“Recognize grief and accept that you’re going to feel sad. Don’t try to block it or get angry at yourself. It’s normal and natural that you are missing that person," said Wilson. "And understand that the grief will ease. The wave hits you, but it will go away."

“If you’re not ready to go to a family gathering, don’t go if you know your grief will be triggered and you don’t want to worry family about your coping abilities," she added. "Don’t drive past that restaurant. You can avoid untimely waves of grief when you are not ready for it.”

It can be helpful, though, to mark the loss of a loved one with a ritual such as visiting a grave site if an in-person funeral wasn’t possible during the pandemic.

“These late rituals may trigger grief but will also give you the support you need,” said Wilson.

Arranging a regular phone call with a supportive friend or family member can also be a big help, and programs in bereavement counselling are offered by most hospices.

The rest of us can help by becoming aware of those around us who are mourning, Wilson added.

“Recognize who is grieving and may be triggered, like the wedding anniversary of an aunt whose husband of 50 years has passed away. Phone and tell that person you are thinking of them and how wonderful they and their loved one was.”

Don’t offer advice, such as how they should be “getting over it,” she added. Instead, offer to visit the grave site together--a helpful gesture which can even start a new healing ritual.

“We need to think about those who need help now and may need help later on.”

Article courtesy of University of Alberta folio