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What the Pandemic is Teaching Us About Grief

Few of us have lived through a time when so many people are grieving so much loss. We need to treat grief like the systemic public health issue that it is.

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Campers embrace at Experience Camps, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Campers embrace at Experience Camps, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we pass the one-year mark of the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about how things have changed in the past year. I’m sure many of you have been doing the same. Our daily routines that provided structure, security and comfort have been upended and replaced with questions. So many questions. 

And also so much grief. Few of us have lived through a time when so many people are grieving so much loss. We need to talk about grief. We need what I call, “grief leadership”. 

And so, my colleagues at Experience Camps and I convened grief experts to explore what the pandemic and its repercussions have taught us about loss. Here are some of the key insights that I took away from the event

  • Grief involves more than a death-related loss: In the past year, Americans have lost many things, including loved ones, employment, in-person schooling, and face-to-face interactions with family and friends. As vaccines roll out, the world will likely begin returning to a semblance of normality. Yet, millions of people will still be grieving, and many mourning the death of someone special.
  • In the U.S., an additional 4.5 million people are grieving — and 1.1 million are kids: Experts estimate that every person who dies from COVID-19 leaves behind nine bereaved loved ones, meaning an additional 4.5 million people are grieving a death right now. Of them, approximately 1.1 million are children. In addition, millions more Americans are confronting deaths due to a variety of other causes, but without the in-person community and rituals designed to help them during such a challenging time.
  • Grief isn’t just a personal tragedy: The ripple effects of grief can be felt throughout communities. Grieving families need holistic support systems that encompass physical and mental health benefits, bereavement leave (from school and work), access to tax relief and financial support, and legal protections. America needs stronger bereavement policies, and families with grieving children need greater access to tools and resources that can help them cope.

After hearing from panelists and attendees, I was reminded that, while grief can feel remarkably isolating, we are not alone. We need to talk about grief. Often, the most helpful support is not an extravagant action; seemingly simple gestures can go a long way. Ask how someone is feeling, initiate conversations about loss, and make space for however they express their grief. For both children and adults, remember that grieving is highly individual and can be a long-term process. You don’t need to be an expert. You just need to show up.

Actually, we all need to show up for each other. We’ve all lost something this year. Moving forward, let’s call for stronger bereavement services and policies, more research into the field of grief, and support for professionals supporting grieving families. 

Together, we can treat grief like the systemic public health issue that it is, and transition to a grief-smart and empathetic world. 

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