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Pre-COVID life seems like a distant past while the world adjusts to a new normal, or shall we say new normals. Early in March 2020, Scott Berinato wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief”; little did we know of the extent of this grief. Adam Grant wrote in 2021 in The New York Times, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” While many gifted writers have tried to deconstruct the complex set of emotions we have been experiencing since early 2020, the world has only been progressively meeting more and more shades of one basic emotion: grief.

Grief is typically defined as the natural response to a bereavement experience or experiencing some kind of loss. Grief can have many faces and typically has many shades of varying emotions, from shock and anger to depression. While theories of grief harp on “stages,” it appears that grief does not unpack in linear stages. Perhaps grief may be conceptualized as a recursive phasic process with its complex set of emotions culminating in finding meaning in the loss and reintegrating it with the narrative of our lives.

There is grief associated with our memory of the pre-COVID world—a palpable sense of loss of what life used to be like before the pandemic. Associated with the old way of life, many have endured loss of livelihoods, familiar neighbourhoods, companion animals and social circles. This shade of grief, however, seems to be equally disenfranchised owing to the universality of the experience. This level of personal grief may also arrive delayed due to the preoccupation and firefighting related to safety, health, recovery and loss of loved ones due to COVID-19. While trauma involves some grief, all grief may not be traumatic. The grief of the pandemic certainly feels like no other grief, with its multitude and diversity of loss and trauma. Several factors associated with the pandemic pave the way for most of the grief to become disenfranchised and traumatic (Kokou-Kpolou, Fernandez-Alcantara & Cenat, 2020). COVID-19 deaths have been referred to as “bad deaths” due to the complex nature of the trauma surrounding the demise and the resultant impact on the survivors. Not only are the deaths traumatic, but also the lack of closure and rites of passage of the deceased, regrief (Chater, 2020) and the traumatic impact of separation from loved ones make the pandemic grief a multilayered, traumatic grief. It also is likely to metamorphose into prolonged grief since much of it may be disenfranchised. As if like a prophecy, the ICD-11 in 2020 defined Prolonged Grief Disorder as a new addition. The possibility of complicated grief (Varshney et al., 2021) and prolonged grief (Bui, Anger and Jaussaud, 2021) in the trail of COVID-19 has been suggested and predicted by many researchers. In a systematic literature review of pandemic grief, Kumar (2021) highlights four themes of pandemic grief: bereavement for self, relational grief, collective grief and ecological grief. With several levels and types of grief intersecting, it can be expected that we are likely to witness grief like never before, more so as the world limps back to a new normal. As Robert Neimeyer says, “The pandemic grief is one for which there is no vaccine.” (Scientific American, May 2021)

COVID-19 has proved to be a collective trauma of our times. Modern life with its preponderance on enhancing human beings’ happiness quotient carries with it an inherent death-denial. We tend to believe that this death-denial is a rightful escape from the unpleasant finality and impermanence of life. COVID-19 was a harsh blow to this constructed glass wall of our times. We learnt that modern medicine can be outwitted by a new virus strain. We learnt that ammunitions may not be enough to wage the war for immunity. We learnt that sickness and death do not discriminate even though they may compound suffering for those who are at an intersection of vulnerabilities. We learnt that even the intense buzz of the modern world can be stopped at the behest of a raging pandemic. We learnt how vulnerable we are, as we came face-to-face with the reality behind the anthropocentrism of our times. In most senses of the word, the trail of grief of COVID-19 is collective. Akin to the Parable of Mustard Seeds from the Story of Buddha, perhaps no household was untouched by some degree of loss, suffering and grief from the pandemic. If we weren’t grieving for our loved ones, we found ourselves grieving for our neighbours, friends, colleagues and others. We were grieving with Italy, with New York, with India and Brazil. We were grieving for people we never met, places we had never been to, cultures that were foreign to us. We were grieving like there were no “others”; we were grieving as “us.” We were experiencing collective and communal grief at an unprecedented level as global grief. Verdery et al (2020) developed a bereavement multiplier that predicted that for every death due to COVID-19, nine people in the kin were expected to be affected in the U.S. This estimate would obviously be higher for non-Western collectivistic societies. Petry et al. (2021) have suggested an “epidemic within an epidemic” resulting from the loss experienced. Grief or mourning is not primarily an intrapsychic process—grief in a social constructivist model in which the processes by which meanings are found, appropriated or assembled occur at least as fully between people as within them (Neimeyer, Klass & Dennis, 2014). It appears that the pandemic grief is perhaps as contagious as the pandemic itself, thus increasing the propensity for individuals to experience traumatic or prolonged grief.

In India during the second wave of the pandemic, mass pyres of unidentified corpses with undignified ends were lit by unfamiliar hands, sans the rituals and rites of passage into afterlife. Suffering and death in its immense proportions had robbed human ends of their customary rituals of dying—and we grieved collectively for the missing dignity of these unidentified pyres.

In one moment in 2019, we were getting used to Fridays for the Future with Greta Thunberg, and in 2020 we were pushed to think whether the Future would really exist the way we have believed so far. Climate change became more of a reality as did the cognizance of environmental crisis alongside the loss and ecological grief that the pandemic brought. Climate change events seemed like cryptic messages that indeed our times are endangered and our years perhaps numbered. There is grief associated with the loss of the planet for the future of humanity or the anticipatory grief of the world coming to an end sooner than we’d have thought.

A quote by Jamie Anderson says “Grief is just love with no place to go.” Kübler-Ross (Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2014) reiterates that we never really get over our grief but we grow to carry our grief. Most models of grief outline acceptance and integration in some form as the ultimate transformation of the loss. Grief has the power to transform the ordinary into superheroes (Harrington & Neimeyer, 2021). As health systems and governments beeped danger signs of crumbling under the pressures of a public health crisis, both individualistic and collectivistic cultures learnt that the fabric of community was perhaps the only sanctuary. From food, medicines, quarantine locations to money, helplines and makeshift hospital beds, the spirit of community sprung into life. Where systems could not function, individuals stepped in with voluntary help. From New York to New Delhi, people rescued people, even within the raging inferno of the coronavirus attack. While the medical fraternity became the army in a world where hospitals became the war zones, we perhaps had many superheroes rising out of the transformative power of this grief—everyday superheroes who went unnoticed, hidden behind masks or in the garb of PPE or on telecalls or behind computer screens. It looks like the grief of the pandemic is another new normal to unpack, identify and resile from. Yet the challenge seems elsewhere. Grief has perhaps been looked at as that untouchable feeling, the emotion that is best avoided (Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2014). Bereaving individuals often describe others walking on eggshells around them (Chater, 2020). Since grief involves pain, many interventions suggest that it be worked on with physical exercise and that connecting with others serves to provide a sense of freedom from the grief. While all the talk on “dealing” with grief is important, the narrative around “feeling” grief needs to be normalized. It’s important to acknowledge the dignity, the sentiment and the purpose of grief before we choose to deal with it. It’s important that silence and acknowledgement of grief is allowed to play its part in social conversations. It’s okay to just sit quietly beside someone who’s grieving, letting them know that we are there for them, as they are treading their journey of grief. More than doing, being is critical in grief support. As David Kessler says, grief has a narrative that needs to be told and witnessed (Kessler, 2019). Making space for these narratives would be a critical task in a post-COVID world.

About the Author

Sukanya Ray is a clinical psychologist in India. A practitioner for 15 years, she is trained in trauma focused therapies, neurofeedback, clinical hypnosis and indigenous yoga including trauma-sensitive yoga. Currently as assistant professor at the School of Human Ecology, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai, she anchors the teaching, training and curriculum development in trauma therapy and trauma-based research projects at the institute.


Berinato, S. (2020) That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief. Harvard Business Review, March 23, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief

Bui, E., Ander, I. and Jaussaud, C. (2021). Grief in the time of COVID-19: An editorial, International Journal of Mental Health, 50:1, 1-3, DOI: 10.1080/00207411.2020.1870847

Chater, A. M. (2020) Let’s talk about death openly: when the work is grieving, please don’t walk on eggshells. British Psychological Society. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/when-world-grieving-please-dont-walk-eggshells

Courage, K.H., (2021) Covid has put the world at risk of Prolonged Grief Disorder. Scientific American, May 2021. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/covid-has-put-the-world-at-risk-of-prolonged-grief-disorder/

Grant, A. (2021) There’s A Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html?smid=url-share

Harrington, J.A. & Neimeyer, R. A. (2021) Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss. The Series in Death, Dying, and Bereavement. Routledge, New York

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Varshney, P., Prasad, G., Chandra, P. S., & Desai, G. (2021). Grief in the COVID-19 times: Are we looking at complicated grief in the future? Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 43(1), 70–73. https://doi.org/10.1177/0253717620985424

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