Loss and Grief During COVID-19: It’s the Thought that Counts

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By: Dr. Megan T. Ebor

We are facing unprecedented loss-of-life at accelerated rates due to COVID-19. These traumas will plague our communities well after the virus has been contained and African Americans will bear this burden disproportionately.

A recent study suggests that for every one person that dies of COVID-19, they will be survived by nine bereaved family members. According to the new director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), by mid-February 500,000 lives could be lost due to the novel coronavirus in the United States (US)—meaning that 4,500,000 people will be left behind to grieve their passing. As various media outlets report statistics on infection and death rates in the US, it is important to remember that these numbers represent people. They represent our grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers, aunties and uncles, brothers and sisters, our cousins and friends. This virus is decimating our communities and the mental health ramifications will be great.

Recently, I had a conversation with a good friend who has suffered multiple losses over this past year and I asked her what advice she would give to community and/or family members that know someone who has lost a loved one during the pandemic? She responded, “Please do not use COVID as an excuse not to reach out. Even if you don’t have anything monetarily to offer… just an acknowledgment means a lot”. This was a very simple answer to a complex circumstance; yet, for a lot of people finding the words to say to someone that has lost a loved one does not always come easily— the default is often not to say anything.

Prior to COVID we could engage in non-verbal interactions like sharing a meal, congregating or sitting together to demonstrate our condolences by being present. Now with physical distancing and social restrictions we have not been able to engage in the cultural rituals and traditional ways of mourning that provide closure and comfort. As the conversation with my good friend continued I found that the old adage, that I have heard often growing up, “It’s the thought that counts,” goes a long way during times like these. Outside of professional mental health support, on a community level, most folks just want and need to feel that they are not forgotten, that they are not suffering alone, and that someone is thinking of them. A phone call, text, email, card, or hand written note placed at the front door, can be a small gesture that helps to get someone through a difficult day. Some may need more than one check-in as they go through the stages of grief, but the only way to know is to ask—everyone grieves differently.

We are a resilient people; still, we will need each other to make it through these turbulent and challenging times. Extending love, compassion, and sympathy are vital now but will be needed for years to come. We have yet to see a global pandemic of this magnitude and the current devastation will extend beyond containment. Let’s remember to hold each other up in the ways that we can no matter how big or small the gesture—After all, “it’s the thought that counts”.

About the Author: Megan T. Ebor, is a researcher at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, within the Center for Culture, Trauma and Mental Health Disparities in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in The David Geffen School of Medicine.

Megan T. Ebor