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Better support needed to address "tsunami of grief" due to COVID-19

Grief in the time of COVID-19 and why improved ber
Photo: Better support needed to address "tsunami of grief" due to COVID-19
Australian researchers have highlighted the acute impact of grief due to COVID-19, and have called for more timely assessment and support to ensure those who need help can access it.

Published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, the study is the first to focus on psychological factors that explain why people bereaved by COVID-19 might experience challenges in important areas of life, work, leisure, and relationships.

Lead author, Associate Professor Lauren Breen from the Curtin School of Population Health, told HealthTimes that “from all the initial evidence, it appears that right now, grief from COVID-19 and the pandemic itself is worse, and there are also more deaths occurring in general.”
“People have called this a tsunami of grief that is both under-recognised and under-supported.”

“We can do better, and the time is right, and the time is right now, to act.”

Professor Breen worked with American researchers to survey people in the United States who had lost a close person due to COVID-19 and found key psychological factors such as separation distress, dysfunctional grief, and post-traumatic stress explained why they were having trouble coping in key areas of life.

“Whether a death is a result of COVID-19 or something else, during the pandemic there have been additional factors that have exacerbated grief.”

“From restrictions around the number of people who can attend the bedside of a dying person, restrictions around how many people can be at a funeral, to even limitations in terms of people’s ability to provide emotional and physical support to each other – like a hug to console someone.”

“Our normal routines have also changed, making it harder for people to participate in their regular activities, and that in general has left some people feeling more isolated”, Professor Breen explained.

“All of this is very additive and affects how someone might be grieving, whether a death is COVID-19 related or not.”

While confronting, the profound impact of grief during the pandemic has not been surprising for many researchers.

“When the pandemic began, lots of experts were predicting the additional problems when it came to grief, and the first few studies that have come out show that there is more grief during the pandemic, and that grief is being experienced more
acutely that for deaths which occurred before the pandemic.”

“We also know that when we looked at functional impairment, two thirds of people were substantially affected. By that we mean that grief can negatively affect all aspects of a person’s life - from work, relationships, to leisure.”

The paper identified a number of strategies that could help address acute levels of grief in the community and reduce the impact of grief on a person’s daily life.

“Firstly, it’s about recognising people’s experience of grief, and that some people may not even recognise it in themselves.”

“In the broader environment, for example, so much has changed for so many people, and grief is not recognised as part of this experience. People have gone through changes in their routines, lost their hobbies and jobs, and grief is a part of that too.”

“Grief isn’t just a response to someone dying, and as a whole, we need to do a better job in acknowledging that.”

“Unfortunately, as is expected, a lot of health services are overwhelmed, and we can see that grief may not be top of the priority list right now – that makes sense.”

“But at the same time, if we don’t identify and support people who are grieving in an appropriate way, then there are additional risks of self-harm and suicide.”

Professor Breen said it was important to understand that there is no one size fits all approach to grief, and that a significant variation in services exists between different health settings.

“Some places have well established bereavement care services and bereavement care roles that sit within multidisciplinary teams, while other places don’t have anything.”

“We need to invest in how we identify and support people who are grieving, but we also need to invest in upskilling health professionals and also increasing the number of bereavements specialists to provide assessment, support, and interventions and therapies where needed.”

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Charlotte Mitchell

Charlotte is a published journalist and editor, with 10 years of experience in developing high-quality content for national and international publications.

With an academic background in both science and communications, she specialises in medical and science writing. Charlotte is passionate about creating engaging, evidence-based content that equips the community with important information on issues around healthcare, medicine and research.

Over the years, she has partnered with organisations including the Medical Journal of Australia, Cancer Council NSW, Bupa, the Australasian Medical Publishing Company, Dementia Australia, MDA National, pharmaceutical companies, and state and federal government agencies, to produce high-impact news and clinical content  for different audiences.