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Wave of delayed grief likely as pandemic ebbs, says expert

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.

  • August 23, 2021
  • By Bev Betkowski

As pandemic restrictions have eased in the past few months, 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 a great deal more because of COVID,” said Wilson, a professor with the U of A's Faculty of Nursing who studies aging, death and grief.

With the pandemic’s many 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 normal grieving rituals which help us manage our grief. Grief is still there and at some point it has to come out. Another major concern is that anyone who had an important loved one die of COVID experienced a sudden loss, and those unexpected deaths are often the hardest.”

The impact of grief triggers

In a new paper, 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 as many things can trigger grief. That includes those affected by a COVID-caused death.

“Now that people are getting out and about (as pandemic safety restrictions lift), if they 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.”

Special days of the year such as Christmas, anniversaries or birthdays are also difficult.

Those triggers can be debilitating, as each sets off a wave of grief, she added. 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 that the triggers can also lead to permanent grief, which often requires professional help such as counselling.

In their search of research databases worldwide, 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.

Wilson finds that highly concerning. 

“We haven’t recognized grief and its triggers as being important. We haven’t recognized that grief is really a very common and very significant health and well-being concern,” she said.

“The pandemic should be a serious wakeup call about how people are grieving around us.”

Coping with grief

People who are grieving can best cope by accepting that grief will be triggered and that this is normal, Wilson advised.

“Recognize it 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.”

It’s also important to understand that the grief will ease, she added. “When that wave of grief hits you, it will go away.”

She advises avoiding triggers when it’s not a good time to be grief-stricken. 

“If you’re not ready to go to a family gathering, don’t go if it’s going to make you feel worse, as you know your grief will be triggered and you don’t want to worry your family about your coping abilities. Don’t drive past that restaurant. You can work to avoid untimely waves of grief—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 gravesite with a friend 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 to have,” said Wilson.

Arranging a regular phone call with a supportive friend or family member can also be a big help, and single and group 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 around us and who is likely to be experiencing triggers, like the wedding anniversary of an aunt whose husband of 50 years has passed away. Please don’t ignore that or think it is better to leave the grieving person alone. 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 can or should be “getting over it,” she added.

Offering to visit the gravesite together is a helpful gesture and might even help start a new, healing ritual, Wilson suggested.

“We will all grieve, so we need to think about those who need help now as they grieve, as we will also need help later on.”