Understanding Grief and Loss in a Global Pandemic

As we mark one year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 health crisis a global pandemic, many of us may be reflecting on the losses this year has brought us. A loss of routine, social connection, personal freedom, as well as academic and financial security have all been defining experiences throughout this pandemic. Coping with the loss of a loved one or dealing with other forms of grief in the context of COVID-19 poses new challenges, but being able to recognize these losses and the different manifestations of grief can act as a stepping stone towards healing.

Common Types of Bereavement During COVID-19

Grief is a natural response to the loss of life, as well as to any drastic changes in our daily routines that usually bring us a sense of stability. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), there are two significant forms of grief that people have experienced during this time:

  1. Ambiguous grief describes a loss that occurs without closure or a clear understanding of what has happened, which can often lead to unresolved feelings. Due to how quickly our lives have had to change during the pandemic, the losses we experience often go unacknowledged as losses. For instance, many of us have experienced a loss of confidence in the future, but we may not have any rituals or even the language to acknowledge them.
  2. Anticipatory grief refers to our feelings of grief before a loss occurs. You might be worried about an unwell family member and already feel you are grieving for them, or you may be anticipating a loss of income and financial insecurity. Even if these fears do not actually come to pass, anticipating them can still lead to legitimate feelings of grief.

Healthy Ways to Cope with Grief

Grieving while coping with anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic can be overwhelming, especially when many of the traditions and ceremonies we use to cope with loss have had to move online or have been cancelled altogether. However, there are still strategies that can help you work through grief and loss during these times.

Connect with other people. Social distancing doesn’t have to stop you from getting the support you need. We can still use phone calls, text messages, video chatting, and social media to stay in touch with loved ones who can offer us a supportive ear. Even pets can provide important emotional support.

Start new rituals. Consider developing new rituals to replace the traditions that have been put on pause. Instead of gathering to mourn in person, you might create a virtual memory book, blog, or webpage to remember your loved one and ask family and friends to contribute their memories and stories. You could also take part in an activity that has significance to you and the loved one who has died, such as planting a tree in their memory or preparing their favourite meal.

Adapt your routine. Routines can help preserve a sense of order and control, despite how things have changed around you. In addition to using work or an online learning schedule to add structure to your day, make sure to include activities that can help you relieve stress and cope, such as exercise, worship (if applicable), or a hobby.

Keep a journal. A journal can provide a safe space to freely express your thoughts, as well as help you pay attention to your mental health as you examine common themes that come up in your writing. If you find it difficult to write about the loss directly, it might be helpful to consider other difficult transitions you’ve been through and write down the tools you used to recover.

Limit your news diet. Spending too much time scrolling through news about the COVID-19 pandemic can cause you to focus heavily on your loss, increasing anxiety. Instead, consider filling that time with a comforting hobby or activity.

Ask for help from others. If you are struggling, you may wish to seek out grief counseling or mental health services, support groups, or hotlines. The University of Toronto offers many resources to help students who are struggling with their mental health.

Resources for U of T Staff and Faculty:

  • Employee and Family Assistance Program (EAFP)
    • Contact Information: To access EFAP services, you may contact Homewood Health toll-free at 1-800-663-1142.
    • Services Offered: The Employee & Family Assistance Program offers confidential short–term counselling, coaching, information, and support for all types of issues relating to mental health, health management, and achieving greater personal and workplace well-being. Their services are available for all U of T staff and faculty.

Resources for U of T Students:

  • Good2Talk
    • Contact Information: 1-866-925-5454
    • Services Offered: Good2Talk is a 24/7/365 confidential helpline for post-secondary students that provides professional counselling, as well as information and referrals for mental health, addictions, and well-being. You can access this helpline through the phone or by text.
  • My SSP
    • Contact Information: To get started, download the mobile app from the Apple Store/Google Play or call 1-844-451-9700. For students outside of North America, call 001-416-380-6578.
    • Services Offered: My SSP provides students with real-time and/or appointment-based confidential, 24-hour support for school, health, or general life concerns at no cost to you. You can call or chat with a counsellor directly from your phone whenever, wherever you are. Ongoing support is available over the phone in 146 languages. Immediate support is available over the phone in 35 languages and over chat in simplified Chinese, English, French, and Spanish.
  • Health and Wellness Centre
    • Contact Information: You may call 416-978-8030 to book an appointment. Please note that appointments are virtual (video or phone). In-person visits to Health & Wellness must be scheduled and pre-arranged.
    • Services Offered: Health and Wellness offers the same services as a family physician, available to eligible University of Toronto students. Doctors at Health and Wellness are your first contact for receiving many other U of T affiliated mental health services, such as workshops and cognitive behavioral therapy. You can also get quick answers to your questions with their COVID Compass and COVID-19 FAQs.
  • Navi: Your mental health wayfinder
    • Services Offered: Navi is an anonymous tool that provides you with information to help you navigate mental health resources and make decisions about seeking appropriate support. This tool is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice, counselling nor does it make any diagnosis or identify personalized treatments. Please do not provide any personally identifying or health information about yourself or anybody else when using this tool. If you have concerns about your health, please speak with your healthcare provider. If this is an emergency, please contact U of T My SSP at 1-844-451-9700 (or 001-416-380-6578 if you are outside North America), Good2Talk at 1-866-925-5454, or 911.

Resources for U of T Students, Staff, and Faculty:

  • Family Care Office Library Resource Centre
    • Services Offered: The Family Care Office’s Library Resource Centre has created a list of accessible services, guides, and other resources that can help you access the grief support you need.
    • During the pandemic, our library is closed. However, many of the 500+ titles in the FCO Library – including several recent releases – can be accessed for free in audiobook and eBook format through Ontario’s public libraries and U of T Libraries.Visit our FCO Library e-resources: Audiobooks and eBooks blog to access online resources.

Additional Resources

The following community resources aim to shed light on the grieving experience, and share tools that specifically address traumatic loss and complicated grief.

  • MyGrief.ca is an online resource to help people work through their grief from the comfort of their own home, at their own pace. This resource was developed by family members who’ve “been there” as well as grief experts to complement existing community resources as well as help address the lack of accessible grief services, particularly in rural and remote areas.
  • Episode 263 of the Public Health on Call podcast covers healing from various aspects of grief and trauma experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In this CBC article, grief counsellor Darcy Harris discusses how the loss of jobs, social interactions, and life milestones create experiences of grief similar to death and long-term illnesses.
  • CAMH has compiled a list of resources to help you understand how the pandemic causes experiences of loss and grief, as well as how to move forward in the face of uncertainty
  • This CMHA article outlines different forms of loss and grief you might be experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic and offers suggestions for healthy ways to cope.
  • In this article, CMHA covers strategies for coping with loneliness during the pandemic and how to nurture social relationships while adhering to social distancing regulations.
  • The Center for Complicated Grief offers a collection of articles, webinars, podcasts, and other resources for people for people working through complicated grief.

Children may have a particularly difficult time understanding and coping with the loss of a loved one. The following resources contain simple methods for parents and caregivers to use that may help their children process grief.

It is important to remember that responses to loss and how people experience grief vary greatly, but with the right support, we can all get through it.