How to Address the Wave of Grief Due to COVID-19 Losses

March 3, 2021
Briana Contreras

Briana Contreras, associate editor of MHE, spoke with Robin Fiorelli, senior director of bereavement and volunteers at VITAS Healthcare, for this week's episode of Tuning In to the C-Suite. Robin and Briana talked about the grief that has affected millions of Americans and millions more throughout the world due to losing loved ones to COVID-19. They also discussed the implications of grief, strategies for coping and efforts underway to help the healthcare industry and consumers train and prepare for a suspected wave of grief that’s to come.

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Below is a brief Q & A of the interview with Robin:

Q: So a bereavement is something we're going to be discussing today and obviously COVID. It was noted that half a million Americans have fallen to COVID-19 and the nation is continuing to grieve for obvious and unfortunate reasons. Can you explain how those affected are grieving? And maybe why this wave of grief is coming to a major concern?

A: It's a very good question, Briana. The CDC reported that for every COVID loss, there is an average of nine individuals mourning that person's death. That would roughly total 4,500,000 Americans grieving. That is a significant number of mourners grieving across our communities all at the same time. Plus, there are unique aspects to this pandemic that have led to challenges to mourning and grief practices.

When President Biden spoke last week when we reached 500,000 deaths, he referred to many of the challenges. They include things like the inability to say goodbye to dying loved ones and what impact that has on the mourning process. The inability to have closure. The in-person rituals: funerals, memorial services, home goings. Just the general restriction on in-person opportunities for social support, and for faith support that mourners typically need when they've had a significant loss. We believe that grief is a very normal process. And that we humans all go through the mourning process when we lose a significant loved one.

But sometimes grief can become more complicated in cases where, for instance, there are concurrent stressful life events. And so we're seeing that even with people who have not had a COVID-specific loss, but who have just lost a loved one in general. Given the fact that they might have also lost employment, or they're ill themselves, maybe they're unable to access their typical support network.

Q: There's no time limit on grief, but when do you possibly think the "wave" will end? Or will it end? This is going to be a conversation for years.

A: Hospices are uniquely positioned, I think, to provide community-based bereavement, and to provide that long-term grief response after a major public tragedy, natural disaster pandemic, what have you. As an example, we're still providing bereavement support in the community where the Parkland school shooting was in Florida. We just crossed the two-year anniversary of that shooting, and we're still providing ongoing grief support in that community. We did for Sandy Hook as well in Connecticut after that school shooting, and also at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

So, because hospice is well-positioned, because our mission has always been about providing community-based bereavement support, we have experience going into disadvantaged communities, and figuring out what that community needs in terms of bereavement support. As an example, in several communities along the border, or in communities where we have a large Latinx community, we do Day of the Dead ceremonies, because we understood that that was an important way for them to commemorate their loss.

Q: How can we train mental health and health professionals to provide bereavement support for their own clients?

A: We're looking at potentially doing a public education campaign about grief and about what's normal, because one thing that we've found through our 40+ years of providing bereavement support, is that caregivers need to be validated that what they're going through is normal. And they need to understand: “What is more complicated grief?” And “What signs and symptoms might I watch out for that may indicate that I need more support than what I'm getting through my social network or through my faith institution or through a support group?”

So that's the kind of teaching that we do. And just validating the fact that they're not going crazy. They're actually grieving, and grief is normal.