New Form of Long-Term Grief Identified Amid Mourners of COVID Victims

prolonged grief disorder describes pathologically long mourning period

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

During the pandemic, many people have been struggling while grieving for lost loved ones. Due to various lockdown and quarantine measures, funerals have become difficult to arrange, complicating the grief process. Grief counselors have a new diagnosis.

Counselor holding hands with patient
The traditional five stages of grief help us to process change and to adapt to our new way of life without our loved one. Photo Dragana Gordic / Shutterstock

After losing a loved one, the bereaved are advised to avoid isolating themselves, by spending more time with friends and family or visiting grief or loss centers to share their grief in a group setting. However, in the age of COVID-19, when social distancing and lockdown measures are the norm, the grieving process is made more complex.

Many people who have lost one or more loved ones have reported feeling stuck in the mourning period for a year or more. The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has recently added the term “prolonged grief disorder” to its pages to diagnose this issue.

Prolonged grief disorder is an aberration of the grieving process. In his video series Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures, Dr. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline University, describes other psychological discoveries about grief.

The Groundbreaking Work of George Bonanno

Dr. Berkson said that the traditional stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—are widely accepted but may not always follow a universal pattern. More recently, he said, a psychologist named George Bonanno teamed with others and produced a book called The Other Side of Sadness, which outlines three categories of ways that people grieve. The first is called chronic grief reactions.

“In [chronic grief reactions] people are simply overwhelmed by the pain of loss and find it all but impossible to return to their daily lives,” he said. “This can endure for years. Research suggests that around 10% of bereaved people suffer from this.”

With the second category, gradual recovery, the bereaved suffer acutely for a short time after the loss, but then they slowly begin to reassemble their lives and integrate back into society. “Resilient responses” are the third category. Here, people regain their equilibrium and move on.

“They don’t necessarily find a state of closure, and even the most resilient hold onto at least a bit of wistful sadness, but they’re able to keep on living their lives and loving those around them,” Dr. Berkson said. “In fact, Bonanno found that people in this category who lost a loved one were able to smile and laugh at times, even shortly after the death.

“Bonanno assured the bereaved that they should not feel guilty about this.”

On some level, he said, humans are hard-wired to deal with loss, so we can often function better than we feel we should.

Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning

Dr. Berkson also said that psychologist J. William Worden made an important contribution to the discussion of grief. Worden identified four goals that we must achieve during the grieving process. He called them the four tasks of mourning.

The first, Dr. Berkson said, is “to accept the reality of the loss—and talking about it helps.” The second task is “to work through the pain of grief—don’t be afraid to cry, or not to.” The third is to adjust to this new environment in which the deceased no longer takes part. This may also entail finding a new purpose. Finally, the bereaved should find an enduring connection with the person they’ve lost while embarking on a new life without them, and keeping the memory of the deceased alive.

“Learning to live with loss is one of our fundamental human tasks,” Dr. Berkson said. “The death of a loved one has an impact on us that never goes away. All of us who have lived long enough carry our lost loved ones with us.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily