(Trigger alert: if sad articles make you depressed, you may want to skip this one.)
“COVID loss” is a thing. (So is COVID anxiety.)
In 2020, an average of about 40 Canadians passed away every day due to complications from Coronavirus. According to Google Trends, about 30 Canadians daily searched Google for “COVID loss”, 22 for “COVID anxiety” and 15 for “COVID depression”. While those web search numbers seem low, they track closely with Canadian COVID hospitalizations and fatalities. More importantly, they show that COVID loss is a tangible concern for a significant number of people. COVID loss remains largely invisible to many of us, who do not personally know anyone who has died or even gotten sick from the virus. Yet the numbers definitively add COVID to the the list of major life threatening diseases. Any disease is serious, but COVID presents unique challenges when it comes to grieving.
Tracking with COVID deaths, online activity around COVID loss, anxiety and depression peaked in March 2020 and is once again on the upswing.
Society is in a state of grieving.
Grief is not just about loss of life, but the loss of anything held dear. Losing a job, a pet, a limb, a relationship, a sense of safety, a way of life are just a few examples of losses people can legitimately grieve. No matter the loss, the feelings are always real. Some researchers have observed that society as a whole seems to be grieving the loss of life as it once was. In the early days of the pandemic it was common to hear I can’t wait until things back back to normal. But it slowly dawned on us that normal might not return. That whatever lies ahead will be a new normal, with many patterns of life learned during COVID becoming fixtures in a future landscape. We have moved through classic stages of grief in trying to grapple with this loss – denial, bargaining, anger… with, let’s face it, acceptance the light at the end of a very lung tunnel.
Difficult times amplify the experience of grief and loss.
When already “shell-shocked” in a state of at least low level grief, the actual loss of a loved one is even harder. Then we have to face the challenge of a new loss with our ability to cope already weakened. For millennia, grieving has always been a shared, communal experience where comfort is mediated to those grieving by the presence and touch of others. Those methods of consolation are severely limited by PPE, physical barriers and time-constrained Zoom meetings. Holding up an iPad in the ICU, this social worker connects isolated COVID-19 patients with loved ones at home.
Survivor Guilt Is Real
According to Wikipedia, Survivor guilt is “a mental condition that occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic or tragic event when others did not, often feeling self-guilt.” Is losing a loved one traumatic? Of course it is. Is losing a loved one during a pandemic traumatic? Doubly so. Regret can be a strong emotion with the loss of a loved one during COVID. As human beings we are made for connection and we want to give our loved ones the comfort of our physical presence. We want to gather around them so they can experience the sense of care. Instead a nurse, rolls a computer monitor into the hospital room. And those of us who are left feel the guilt of not having been able to care for them the way they deserved, because quarantine protocols prevented it. Some of us were also sick with COVID and live with the awareness that we may have passed it on to the loved one. One researcher says, “Survivor guilt can result in a range of emotions, from shame to a sense of unworthiness or even anger.” She continues, “Unless we tackle survivor guilt, it could ultimately add to the mental health burden of COVID-19 by manifesting as future depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.” (From theconversation.com )
An Uncertain Future
Even as vaccinations become more widely available and case counts become manageable, it is difficult to predict long term second order effects of the disease. Will everyone recover fully or will they suffer from long term heart and lung issues? How immune will people become once fully vaccinated? How long will the immunity last? How prepared will we be for mutations to the virus? What will it take for society as a whole to move to a state of acceptance and move on with life? One thing is certain: COVID is with us as a physical and mental health issue for the months and years to come.
Here To Stay
At The Family Enhancement Centre, we hope you have not been personally affected by a COVID loss. If you have a lost a loved one this year, you have our sincere condolences. We are here to help deal sort of feelings, deal with the practical concerns of bereavement and begin to make sense of the loss. Talk to a friend, phone a help line, access your work’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or seek the help of a professional grief counsellor who can help you accept your feelings and see the light at the end of the tunnel. We would be happy to put you in touch with one.