COVID-19 has changed our world. Popular podcasts like RadioLab now end every episode reminding people that someone they know will likely die from this pandemic. Business publications like SAP's are publishing content from their editors about this new normal full of grief.
Indeed, it is a different world. Specifically, it is different in that everyone is learning that this uncomfortable feeling, this anxiety and depression at lack of control, has name –– and it is grief.
A recent study, done before this pandemic by Amerispeak and WebMD, found that 57% of Americans are grieving the loss of someone close to them over the last three years. That means every other person you see is grieving –– because grief never really goes away.
And that was what our world looked like in the summer of 2019. In the spring of 2020, the coronavirus is increasing that number –– bringing loss to many more of our doorsteps. And here's the thing:
Everyone’s personal grief journey will be different.
It will be different for every person, pet, or deep connection you lose.
- There is no end date.
- There is no specific stage you should be at.
All there is is how you feel, how you grieve as time passes, and how you cope. And in the coping phase, friends and family can be incredibly helpful. Of course, they can accidentally be incredibly unhelpful as well.
That’s why studies like this are so important.
This study, which surveyed more than 1,000 Americans, reveals how those who have recently grieved the death of a child, spouse, a close friend, a close family member, or a pet, have felt about that loss in relation to how their friends and family supported them (or didn't).
This is how they remember feeling, how they coped, and what tactics from friends, family, and others most helped or hurt their grieving process.
For all of us in this moment in history together, these insights can help us understand what we can do to help those we love with some of life's most difficult experiences and emotions, even from afar.
A Majority of Americans Are Grieving
57% experienced major loss in the last 3 years.
The old adage that you don’t know what it’s like in someone’s shoes unless you’ve walked a mile in them is true. More than 57% of Americans reported experiencing a major loss over the last three years.
In all, 32% experienced the loss of a family member or close friend, 20% experienced the death of a pet, 3% expired the loss of a spouse or partner, and 2% experienced the loss of a child.
Within that, 45% of the deaths were anticipated, 45% were not anticipated, and another 8% were anticipated as the result of a violent circumstance.
Truly, the majority of Americans are dealing with some sort of pain and complicated grief at all times. Keep that in mind as you move through your day –– in traffic, at the grocery store, on your evening jog. A little kindness can go a long way to help make someone’s day a little bit brighter.
- 32% of people have experienced the death of a family member or close friend
- 20% have experienced the death of a pet
- 3% death of spouse
- 2% death of child
The First Year is the Hardest
But grief doesn’t end when the calendar hits month 13.
While there is no preset or determined grief timeline because everyone’s grief journey is different, survey respondents said that the most intense emotions and grieving were in the first year after the loss.
That makes sense. Life changes, and every single event is a new experience without that loved one: the holidays, the birthdays, the anniversaries.
But grief doesn’t end there.
Plenty of Americans report they are still intensely grieving at the 3 year mark.
This is especially true for those who have lost a child or partner (38% are still intensely grieving).
Again, this makes sense. Every life event and milestone, any good news or any bad news, all of it is a moment their loved one isn’t experiencing with them.
For friends and families of those grieving, be cognizant of this.
- Reach out –– over text, email, a call, anything (but maybe not social, and you’ll see why soon!) –– and let them know you are thinking of them.
- Talk about their loved one. Say their name.
- Recall specific details about them –– especially if it was something only you and that person shared. Learning new information about what someone you love said, or thoughts, or did can be healing.
Most intense grieving (total):
- Less than 12 months 71%
- More than 1 year 11%
- Still intensely grieving 17%
Child/partner most intense grieving:
- Less than 12 months 32%
- More than 1 year 38%
- Still intensely grieving 30%
Family/close friend most intense grieving:
- Less than 12 months 72%
- More than 1 year 10%
- Still intensely grieving 17%
Pet most intense grieving:
- Less than 12 months 81%
- More than 1 year 7%
- Still intensely grieving 12%
Experiencing Physical Pain is Real
There are real, physical symptoms and side effects that come with intense grief: 65% of Americans those going through intense grieving experience some sort of physical ailment, or a combination of multiple ones.
You can see below how it breaks down overall. As a friend or family member trying to help, understand that these physical ailments are real, and side effects of mental health symptoms associated with their intense grief.
Be there for them. Sit with them. Do exactly what you would to aide anyone else experiencing these pains. Whatever you do, do not dismiss them.
This is an incredibly important, and painful, part of life. Potentially even help them find health care providers that may be able to help lessen the physical pain and as they better sort through the mental hurdles.
- 39% experience fatigue
- 32% change of appetite
- 25% headaches
- 20% aches and pain
- 15% stomachaches
- 12% heart palpitations
- 5% new diagnosis or worsening disease, cancer, blood pressure
- Other 10%
Loss Wreaks Havoc On Your Mental Health
In more ways than one.
These physical ailments are likely due to mental symptoms associated with the pain of the loss of a close connection.
As a friend or family member, keep an eye out for anything on the suicidal thought spectrum. It isn’t unheard of for those experience deep grief to go in that direction. If that happens, seek help.
The other symptoms are serious, as well, and require your empathy, your ear if they want to talk, and likely just your silence as you sit together in the suck of the loss.
- 83% experienced sadness
- 42% experienced depression
- 31% inability to sleep / sleep disturbances
- 29% anger
- 19% anxiety, including PTSD
- 5% suicidal thoughts
- Other 2%
Negative Loops Are Recognized
But difficult to stop.
Many folks experiencing intense grief and mourning get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts and feedback. Isolation, self-blame, and a feeling of a lack of purpose tend to increase the closer a connection is to you.
These negative loops are recognized by those who are in them, given that so many continue to grieve intensely three years later. But, they are incredibly difficult cycles to break.
As a friend or family member, one of the best things you can do is to listen intensely, even if it gets repetitive, and kindly point out where the thinking might not be accurate. If it is accurate, let it sit. Let it be. The situation sucks. That’s all you have to say.
Sometimes new experiences in which those grieving can look forward to something that has to do with their passed loved one can help.
For instance, memorial diamonds –– which take 7-11 months to create, through which loved ones get updates about the process throughout –– or legacy project –– which people create and share to keep the memory of their loved one and their legacy alive –– can be extremely helpful to break negative cycles.
- 41% intense sorrow, pain, thoughts and feelings of loss
- 27% problems accepting the loss
- 18% guilt or self blame
- 16% lack of trust in others, isolating from others and withdrawal from social actives
- 22% numbness or detachment
- 20% trouble carrying out normal routines
- 15% bitterness about the loss
- 17% excessive avoidance of reminders of the loss
- 12% feeling your life hold no meaning or purpose
- 15% intense and persistent lingering for the deceased
- Other 8%
More Time With Friends And Family
That's the #1 coping strategy.
Almost a full 50% of those grieving intensely say spending more time with friends and family is extremely helpful. Loss seems to bring along a power to form a family of all types to offer support, whether it be friends, neighbors, or co-workers.
Yes, there may be periods of isolation, or outbursts of anger, but by-and-large, those grieving want to spend time around those who knew and loved their loved one, too.
Music, faith, books, exercise, and creative expression rank high as coping mechanisms as well.
A good idea is to use your time together to listen to music, practice a religious or spiritual ritual, recommended books or talk about the advice in them, exercise together, or create something together –– like a painting, or a dance, or a journal practice.
Read about this deep father-son relationship and get a glimpse of the power of vulnerability in strengthening family ties.
- 49% spent more time w/ friends and fam
- 35% listened to / played music
- 26% sought out faith / spiritual practices
- 16% read books
- 14% increased exercise
- 16% spent time on creative expression, writing, art, etc.
- 9% traveled
- 5% saw a mental health professional, a grief counselor or sought out professional help sessions
- 5% attended in-person or online support groups / grief support forums / discussions
- 9% other
You Want to Help.
Here's what does and doesn't sit well.
Platitudes are known to not be the best way to make someone feel better. But it turns out, they are far from the worst. Trying to cheer someone up through effort like a group activity, sharing memories, or even just showing effort in general through your presence is the best way to help.
The worst way? Telling someone they should have already moved on, or offering unsolicited advice.
Also, do what you can to keep your own stories of loss tucked in close, at least for a little while. For many, they can help. But for many, they can make the situation worse. Gauge the person you love before going down that path.
As the support system, you are an incredibly important part of a new daily routine or daily activities, and your friend or loved one's future well-being.
The Most Helpful:
- 51% tried to cheer me up
- 44% shared their own experience
- 29% platitudes
- 12% when they posted about my loss on their social
- 9% unsolicited advice
- 9% told me I needed need to move on / seek closure
- 7% it could be worse
The Least Helpful:
- 22% told me it could be worse
- 19% told me I needed to move on / seek closure
- 11% when they posted about my loss on their social
- 10% platitudes
- 6% shared their own experience with loss
- 6% tried to cheer me up
Things Will Get Better
But they will be different.
More than half of residents said that 3 years after the loss, they are more appreciative of life (65%) and have more empathy for others (51%).
Relationships, faith, purpose, finances, and career can all take hits throughout those three years, but for many, they come full circle and begin to feel even stronger than before.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds. But it does make for new normals, and that comes with both the bitter and with the sweet.
- 65% stronger appreciation of life
- 51% stronger empathy for others
- 32% stronger relationships
- 34% stronger faith
- 24% stronger sense of purpose
- 14% stronger finances
- 7% stronger career
Coping with loss doesn’t happen in grief stages like so many people might think. Instead, it happens over time, as each holiday goes by, as a new normal sets in.
Friends and family, though, have an incredibly important role to play. They are the best coping strategy those grieving intensely have, and how they respond to the grieving, what they say, or what they don’t, all matter.
It doesn’t have to be awkward. It just has to feel right, honest, and helpful.