COVID Deaths are Traumatic

by Janice Harris Lord


In contrast to anticipated grieving, we commonly describe traumatic grieving as a severe form of separation distress that usually occurs following the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one (American Psychological Association.) When I wrote No Time for Goodbyes: Coping with Sorrow, Anger, and Injustice After a Tragic Death, my intended readers were those whose loved ones died tragically from murder, other homicides, vehicular crashes, drownings, fatal assaults, and suicides.


Now, I believe that, in most aspects, COVID-related deaths should also be included in that definition. Without doubt, COVID has been the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes. If you are a family member or friend of someone who died from COVID, you will find that most of the material here applies to you. But before you start reading, I’d like to address a few of the differences.


Chapter 1: Your Grief is Unique.

If your loved one died in a hospital, it may not have been as sudden as a homicide or vehicular fatality, but it still felt very sudden. Some of the people in the book write about their nonchalant goodbye to their loved one the last time they saw them, and the next communication they received was the death notification. You knew your loved one was sick, but you likely did not know that he or she was extremely sick. You had no idea that your pre-admission goodbye at the hospital would be your final goodbye. 

One of the toughest parts of dealing with COVID 19 is that the virus forced hospitals to close its doors to visitors out of safety concerns. It is terrifying to be sitting in an emergency department waiting area after a shooting or drowning, awaiting the news. It can feel equally or more terrifying to not even be allowed in the building. Proximity matters. We want to be as near our loved ones as we can possibly be.


If you had the opportunity at all to say goodbye, it was likely by phone. Like the other surviving family members and friends in the book, you would have given anything to be at his or her bedside to touch and say everything you wanted to say.


Most of the deaths in the book included violence. Your loved one may not have suffered from a bullet wound, but his or her body was still invaded with the many instruments and tools used to try to save lives. You may or may not have been physically allowed to see your loved one, but television news has covered hospital scenes for days. You probably have formed a picture of your loved one in your mind, whether or not it is accurate.


Many murders, homicides, and criminal vehicular fatalities are someone’s choice. Those choices provide a clear target for anger among the survivors. You may be angry about what happened, but you have no clear target for it. If your loved one chose not to get vaccinated, some of the anger might be targeted toward that decision, and yet, it’s complicated to both be angry and filled with love and grief at the same time. In addition, you may feel guilty for not having more strongly encouraged vaccination.


Remaining Chapters

As you read through the first seven chapters of the book, you will see that your experience differs some from those who share their stories. However, I believe you will find many more commonalities than differences. My prayer is that the words of these survivors will help you feel less alone in your traumatic grieving.


You may skip Chapter Eight (Suicide), even though some may benefit from it if you feel that your loved one was in some way responsible for his or her own death.


I encourage you to read Chapters Nine (Holidays), Ten (Spirituality) and Eleven (Professional Counseling). I believe they will help you.


You may skip Chapter Twelve (Criminal Justice System). 


Most of Chapter Thirteen (Financial Issues) will apply to you. Just disregard that which doesn’t.


Some of the Resources will apply to you.


In conclusion, please know that those of us in the field of Traumatic Grief do recognize that grieving a COVID-related death is much like what we had previously considered “tragic deaths.” I encourage you to seek support from the professionals who specialize in traumatic grief because your experience is not at all like the anticipated grief of losing a loved one to injury, illness, or aging over a long period of time. We know you are overwhelmed and heartbroken. We know you were not able to do everything you could to ease the passing of your loved one. We know it was tragic.