Learning to Cope with an Unavoidable Part of Being Human

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in over one million American deaths, casting a blanket of grief over the entire country. As a clinical psychologist who oversees the assessment and treatment of bereaved youth and families across Texas and Louisiana, I am acutely aware of the devastating toll the pandemic has taken on adults and children alike.

Notwithstanding its significant challenges, the pandemic has presented us with a unique opportunity to address the topic of grief and how best to cope with this unavoidable part of being human.

Perhaps because American society is so focused on remaining youthful and forestalling aging, we have not done a good job of acknowledging death and supporting individuals who are grieving. There may never be a better time to begin doing so. New York Life Foundation’s most recent State of Grief Report showed that 68 percent of respondents would like a more open dialogue around the topic of grief.

Our society’s culture of silence surrounding bereavement has not only limited our ability to recognize the painful aspects of grief but has also denied us opportunities to identify and talk about how we can grieve in healthy and adaptive ways. Grief, after all, is a natural part of life and a reflection of the love we have for the person who died. As the late Queen Elizabeth II once famously said, “grief is the price we pay for love.”

A common sentiment from bereaved families is that they feel external pressure to “get over” the death of their loved one within a certain period. However, grief does not have a set timeline, and for most individuals, waves of grief will ebb and flow over the course of their lives. The new diagnosis of Prolonged Grief Disorder now included in the DSM-5-TR – the “bible” of mental health – is misleading because the name itself implies that if one is grieving after a certain amount of time, they are necessarily grieving in an unhealthy way. This notion can make people even more hesitant to express their true feelings about their loss, fearing that someone might think they’re “crazy” or “abnormal” if they still long for their person or feel distressed after a number of years have passed since the death.

Many well-intentioned family members and friends are often so concerned about saying the “wrong thing” after a death, that they don’t say anything at all, leading to an even more profound sense of isolation for those mourning. Sometimes, grieving in healthy ways requires us to let other people know what’s most helpful to us, including talking about our person, sharing memories of the person, and acknowledging their continued absence.

Another common concern expressed among mourners is that “giving up” the pain of their loss means that they will also lose their connection to the deceased or fail to honor their memory. But there are many ways of connecting to our deceased loved ones that do not center exclusively on intense pain and sorrow. For example, we can feel close to the person who died by engaging in the same activities that they used to enjoy or living life the way they would have wanted us to live. We can identify things that we had in common with the person and carry on those traits and behaviors as a means of honoring their memory.

Although we may feel burdened with thoughts about how the person died, especially if the cause of death was violent or tragic, we can find ways of transforming the circumstances of the death into something that can prevent other people from suffering in the same way. For example, we can raise money for a relevant cause or pursue a career that directly addresses the circumstances of the death.

Research shows that adaptive grieving is the norm and that most bereaved individuals will go on to lead healthy, happy lives. However, it is also true that a significant minority of individuals can feel so “stuck” in their grief that it impairs their ability to function, sometimes requiring treatment. We can help address this by having an open dialogue about grief, which can normalize and validate mourners’ experiences and ensure that those who do need a higher level of support receive it.

The pandemic can serve as an impetus for a new, more grief-informed society, one in which we never have to grieve alone.  We can start building this society today by openly naming grief, accepting that it’s part of our reality, and recognizing it in all its forms, including its positive, generative aspects. 

In this way, we can transform our tragedies into triumphs and painful endings into hopeful new beginnings.

Type of work:

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, executive director of the Trauma and Grief (TAG) Centers at The Hackett Center for Mental Health in Houston and the Children’s Hospital New Orleans,...