(CBS Newspath) – As coronavirus deaths rise in the U.S. and so many families lose loved ones, mental health experts are bracing for a grief pandemic. Most people experience intense grief when they lose someone close, but for some, they are unable to adapt to the loss as time goes on.
Prolonged grief disorder, or complicated grief, is a condition that makes it difficult for a person to function because they experience intense, continued longing, sadness, and preoccupying thoughts of a loved one. “People are stuck, they can’t find a way forward, and very often they’re sort of caught up in either being afraid of the grief and trying to avoid it all the time,” says Dr. Katherine Shear, director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University.
She’s concerned with so many loved ones separated and dying alone during the COVID-19 pandemic, we could see more people suffering prolonged grief. “Feeling guilty about not having been with them, angry about not being able to be with them, those kinds of reactions to COVID can become derailers if you don’t deal with them,” Dr. Shear says.
A recent study from USC shows for every person who dies of COVID-19, nine family members are left to grieve. With the death toll climbing, millions are grieving. Therapists are expecting to see a bereavement pandemic in the coming months.
In 2004, 13-year-old Eric Muldberg died of cancer, leaving his mother Stephanie overwhelmed by his unimaginable loss. For four years after Eric’s death, Stephanie said it felt as though it just happened every single day. “My grief hurt so much it was almost, like, physical. I didn’t have any faith in myself to make a good decision,” she says.
Stephanie was suffering from complicated grief. She went through a 16-week treatment program at Columbia. “I found out that you can grieve and live at the same time, and grieve and move forward at the same time,” she says. Stephanie says she’s grateful she can now find joy in her life.
About 20% of people who mourn the loss of loved ones deal with complicated grief, according to Dr. Shear. Women and people of color are more prone as well as people with a history of anxiety and mental health struggles.