Arts & Sciences COVID-19

WashU Expert: Grieving in the time of a pandemic

At a time when the world is focused on a global pandemic, how does one person grieve for and memorialize the loss of an individual? (Image: Shutterstock)

Some 23,000 people across the globe — including more than 1,000 Americans — have died as a result of COVID-19 as of March 26.

Along with many aspects of life since the virus took hold, grieving also has become more complicated for the friends and families of those who died.

“There are two reasons,” said Brian Carpenter, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.


“First, the deaths are occurring within the context of a large public health crisis. A lot of attention is on the larger issue, and rightly so,” he said. “But this may make it more difficult for an individual to focus on a personal loss when so much feels urgent right now — the disease, of course, but also the economy, work uncertainty, our individual and collective vulnerability.”

The other reason grieving has become even more complicated, Carpenter said, is that there are so many deaths occurring at once. At one New York hospital alone, 13 people died in a single day (March 25) from the virus. In all, 100 people in New York state died from the virus that same day.

“Usually deaths are spaced out over time in a community, but now we have a spike — so many are happening at once,” Carpenter said. “Any one death in the pandemic is more likely to get lost. And survivors may feel the death they’ve experienced may be less significant or meaningful, less noteworthy, when so many people are dying over a short period of time.”

But for those grieving, Carpenter said that it is important to take time and make space for themselves. “It’s important to find time to memorialize every individual who dies, to make an effort to say who these people are and acknowledge the life they lived.”

In a world where stay-at-home orders across the country mean that many of the traditional rituals surrounding death — wakes, funerals, church services, etc. — are prohibited, memorializing the dead can be difficult.

But families and friends are finding ways to cope.

Read more.