Factors affecting the grieving process during Covid-19

Grief and Fear

“Nobody ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”

                                                                                                                                                — C.S. Lewis

The feeling of being abandoned by a loved one could lead a child to more than just feeling terrified. Angry or guilty feeling may be present, too. Thoughts like Why did this happen? or Was it my fault? Or Could I have done something to prevent this? may flood a child’s mind and heart making them fearful that someone else they love may die or them themselves may die, especially during this time of COVID-19.

For example:

  • A preschooler who has recently experienced a grandparent’s death to COVID-19, without the chance to say goodbye, may feel afraid of losing their mother or father next.
  • A junior school learner whose teacher has died from COVID-19 will worry about other teachers or adults in their lives who may fall ill and die.
  • A high school learner who has lost a close friend to COVID-19  may become so full of fear, wondering if they might also become infected and die or if the intense emotional pain of losing their friend will ever subside.
  • A school leaver who may have had an argument with a parent before they suddenly took ill and died might feel a sense of responsibility and guilt about the death. This can leave them vulnerable with feelings of remorse and ‘unfinished business’ which often is a risk factor for complicated grief.

Other factors affecting the grieving process during COVID-19

The article How to tell a child or young person that someone has died from coronavirus on the Winston’s Wish website suggests that other factors may affect the grieving process during this time of COVID-19. Below find a few of these factors that may be relevant in the South African context:

  • Unpredictability:  It is very difficult to predict who will die from COVID-19 and for a child who may have lost one family member and is already grieving, it may be hard to assure the child that other people won’t die too, this fear may exacerbate the normal grieving process.

  • Separation: Due to social distancing, isolating and quarantining, children have to be physically distant from those who might have supported them such as friends, teachers and extended family.

  • Suddenness: A loved one may suddenly get ill and die quite rapidly which may leave the family little time to adjust to a changing future and the ability to cope with issues such as financial woes due to loss of income from the person who died.

  • Absence of traditional rituals: With heavy restrictions on gatherings, such as funerals and memorial services, children may not have a chance to ‘say goodbye’ in a formal sense. (This will be covered in greater detail in a future topic).

  • Increased anger: Children and adolescents may feel angry about things that they perceive to have contributed to the death of their loved one, such as failure to comply with restrictions like wearing of masks, or the inadequate availability of resources in hospitals such as oxygen or ventilators.

The next few topics will give suggestions on how children can be supported whilst grieving their loved ones to ensure that they are not at risk of developing delayed or complicated grief.