Chapter 3: Grief and COVID-19

Traumatic grief

What the grief experts say
Esther Kalaba, art therapist, suggests the present pandemic is an opportunity to reconsider how we feel about life, and end of life.(3:22)
“Mr. R was very special to me. When our facility went into lockdown his family, who he was very close to, couldn't visit. I held his hand as he died, without his family with him, as he struggled to breathe.” -  Personal support worker

Regardless of the training or our years of experience, certain deaths can still be traumatic, shocking and upsetting. Multiple deaths, such as those that may occur with COVID-19, can feel particularly overwhelming. Witnessing multiple deaths or a traumatic death can create a trauma response. This shifts us into ‘survival mode’ and can overwhelm our usual coping abilities. This is called traumatic grief. It may be temporary, or last for a longer time. 

With traumatic grief, the “typical” emotional, physical, and behavioural impacts we experience are often more severe or intense. COVID-19 cases may impact and prolong our grief, and increase the potential of traumatic grief. We may experience other grief or conditions along with traumatic grief.

Vicarious trauma, also called compassion distress and secondary traumatic stress, may occur if we encounter repeated exposure to the trauma experienced by others, such as patients, families, or other team members. For example, the inability of families to support the person who is dying. With our ongoing exposure to grief during this extraordinary situation, we are at increased risk of vicarious trauma. 

Psychological trauma occurs when a person faces imminent death or serious injury to themselves or others. We may witness not only deaths but also medical interventions that cause severe pain or suffering. We may be exposed to situations that seem, or are life-threatening, to us or other people.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is directly linked to a traumatic event. It is a diagnosable and treatable psychological condition. Symptoms include:

  • Intrusive memories 
  • Efforts to avoid certain thoughts or reminders of the event 
  • Difficulties with memory 
  • Irritability 
  • Depressed mood

The intensity of these symptoms impairs an individual’s personal and professional functioning. Importantly, these symptoms and difficulties must have occurred for at least 1 month before a formal diagnosis can be made by a licensed healthcare professional. 

 What may help? 

  • Give simple acknowledgement of your feelings, especially the difficult ones.
  • Remind yourself that what you are experiencing is a normal response to an abnormal event.
  • Create opportunities to talk openly with trusted colleagues and mentors about what has happened and how it is affecting you. For example, while walking out with a trusted co-worker after your shift, you might debrief about your day. 
  • Arrange an appointment to talk with a mental health professional or spiritual leader. 
  • Coordinate a break time to talk with a trusted colleague or friend – even if this means talking on the phone from your car.
  • Access or participate in webinars, or seminars about COVID-19 and grief. 
  • Find creative or physical ways to express your grief and loss.