Six doctors and nurses in scrubs and wearing face shields, facing various directions in a room at the COVID unit.
Incubation room in COVID unit at Nebraska Medicine. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Medicine.

When a loved one dies from COVID-19, it can worsen the grieving process, Nebraska health professionals say.

A great deal of guilt can come from a loved one dying of COVID, said Dr. David Cates, director of behavioral health at University of Nebraska Medical Center. Some people might blame themselves if they think they gave their loved one COVID, he said, while some also blame others for not being careful enough and for giving their loved one COVID. 

Another complicating factor surrounding COVID deaths is that family members were not allowed to visit their loved ones in hospitals during the beginning of the pandemic, Cates said. That also could contribute to feelings of guilt.

“That was a particularly painful and horrible experience for family members who couldn’t be physically with their loved one while they were dying,” he said. “In our culture, in our society, we expect to be able to be with people, especially if we know they’re dying and they’re in the hospital and so that was really hard.”

Those suffering the loss of loved ones to COVID also have little relief from their grief because the pandemic dominates the news and conversations, so they are constantly reminded of their loss, said Pam Dineen, clinical operations director and founder of Mourning Hope, which offers grief counseling and support programs. 

Adding to the challenge for those grieving are the other losses they may have suffered in the pandemic, including losing a sense of normalcy, a job or social interactions, said Dr. David Miers, director of behavioral health services at Bryan Medical Center. 

Grief is normal, but people will experience it differently, such as feeling shock, anxiety, distress, anger, sadness and loss of sleep or appetite, Miers said. 

It is important for those who are grieving to talk to others about their loss and feelings, Cates said. 

“We know that people who have social support do better in general, in coping with loss, than people who don’t have social support, so that’s really critical,” he said. 

Connection is key, Miers said, whether that is meeting with friends in person, participating with online groups or facetiming family.

Mourning Hope offers a virtual group for those who 30 years and older who are suffering because of COVID deaths, Dineen said. The group, which meets for eight weeks, helps people better understand their grief and learn coping mechanisms.

People who are grieving shouldn’t be afraid to reach out for help, even if it’s just asking someone if they can do lawn care, get groceries or pick up their kids, Dineen said. Sometimes help with the little things can make all the difference. 

In addition to connections and counseling, people should focus on exercise, sleep and nutrition because grief can worsen when one of those is out of balance, Miers said. 

“That’s where we start to see folks struggle and that can become serious,” he said. 

Another way people can cope with loss is to honor and celebrate the life of their loved one, such as making a donation to charity or creating art of their loved one, Cates said. 

Journaling also can be helpful for coping as it helps people to organize their thoughts and express their feelings, especially if they are not comfortable talking to someone about their grief, Cates said. 

People also should realize that there is no standard length for the grief process, Dineen said. 

“A lot of people think they should be over it in a certain amount of time and honestly, we are never over it,” she said. “It becomes part of who we are and we learn to reconcile that loss, but it is always part of our life and always part of what’s in our hearts and in our memories.”

Although grieving is normal, Cates said, it becomes an issue when it negatively affects other parts of life, such as an inability to to complete daily tasks, substance abuse, a desire for self harm or depression. 

People should watch for signs that grief has progressed to something more serious, Miers said. Those signs include experiencing negative feelings or suffering a loss of sleep or appetite for more than two weeks. If those occur, Cates suggests people reach out to a psychologist or psychiatrist. 

Those who know of those who recently have lost someone to COVID should check in with them and encourage conversation, Cates said. 

“It’s funny in our society, a lot of people are uncomfortable around loss, of any kind of death and they sort of don’t want to talk about it,” Cates said. 

But, he advised, if those grieving do not want to talk, don’t force them. But if they do, listen and be supportive. 

Cates encourages those who are grieving to not be afraid to open up.  

“If you don’t actually have a chance to talk about your grief, it takes longer to heal,” he  said. “There’s no shame in that. Everybody could use some help at times in their lives.”

Hello! I'm Carly Jahn and I'm a senior journalism major and I'm minoring in criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Besides reporting for Nebraska News Service, I also work as a news editor at The Daily Nebraskan. I'm interested in investigative journalism and giving people a platform to share their voice.