Tag Archives: grief

Young adults are grieving the developmental milestones they’ve missed under the pandemic

Young adults around the world are experiencing grief and loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new research reveals, despite few having directly experienced the death of someone close.

Image credits Randy Rooibaatjie.

A new study focusing on college students’ experiences with the pandemic points to a growing burden of grief and loss. The results highlight that young adults today are struggling with “losses in life, not of life”. These ‘shadow losses’ are not discussed and remain unknown and unaddressed by officials and healthcare providers. However, they could mark the current generations of young adults for a very long time to come.

Shadow losses are grief-inducing experiences that do not involve death. Losing touch with your family and friends, missing important social events or opportunities, are all examples of shadow losses.

A gentle sorrow

The authors hope that such results will help officials and healthcare providers better help young adults to adjust to their experiences during the pandemic, and the ones that will come after. These results were collected as part of class assignments asking students to reflect on the earliest and most significant losses they experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We wanted the students to emphasize what they’re feeling and how they’re coping,” said Raven Weaver, assistant professor in Washington State University’s Department of Human Development, and first author of the study. “We as a society don’t often talk about this, but there is progress in normalizing conversations around death, loss, and grief.”

“The idea of self-disenfranchisement was very common,” “They would say things like ‘It was a loss, but not a death, so it shouldn’t be a big deal.’ There’s a sense that we shouldn’t grieve smaller losses. But we need to acknowledge that talking about smaller losses is a healthy response and can benefit our mental health.”

Several participants mentioned feeling grief following the death of someone close to them, but most responses fell into the scope of ‘shadow losses’. This is a term coined by thanatologist Cole Imperi that refers to the grief caused by the loss of important experiences or opportunities. The results, as Weaver explains, also show that students tended to minimize the importance of these shadow losses to their mental health, despite the impact these had on their overall wellbeing.

The responses were collected from the stories 86 students submitted as part of the courses Weaver and her co-authors teach at the Washington State University and the University of Wisconsin. These courses — one, for example, is the HD 360: Death and Dying course — traditionally have a similar project dealing with death-related grief, but the authors wanted to capture a clearer snapshot of other kinds of loss that people experienced during the pandemic.

One of the major themes that emerged, they report, is that the students encountered huge challenges in communicating with loved ones in a “normal” way, and this had a profound effect on their well-being. Another large impact was caused by the loss of social interactions and of opportunities in education.

“It was difficult reading students’ experiences of not being able to say goodbye in person, of visiting a nursing home and talking through a window, or only talking via technology,” Weaver said. “But talking about these experiences helps people. That’s what we’re working toward.”

Grief, the paper explains, is a natural response caused both by tangible and intangible losses (the loss of a loved one vs. losses in social activity or security, for example). The authors cite previous research stating that for every death caused by the pandemic, an estimated nine people grieved. Their goal was to attempt to quantify the effects of intangible losses during this time, especially as “young adults reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms compared to pre-pandemic levels”.

All in all, the paper concludes that young adults experienced “substantive loss” during the pandemic, including missing out on important events that constitute developmental milestones, loss of contact with their friends and family, and the loss of opportunities regarding education and career development.

These factors should be taken into account by officials and healthcare providers, the paper adds, as they have a sizeable effect on the development and well-being of entire generations caught by the pandemic during a critical time in their lives.

The paper “Young adults’ experiences with loss and grief during COVID-19” has been published in the journal Death Studies.

Pets offer better emotional support to grieving people than humans

Credit: Pixabay.

Research shows that social support is highly important to help grieving individuals cope with their loss. Yet social support can take on many forms. A new study, whose results may surprise some, found that pets, rather than human support, offer the most satisfactory support when grieving.

These findings could be even more relevant in these pandemic times when most people were more isolated than they have ever been during their lifetimes. More than 600,000 Americans have been killed by COVID-19, with each leaving, on average, nine people grieving. This means that more than five million people are currently battling grief on account of the pandemic alone.

“Social support seems to help some bereaved people, particularly those with traumatic grief, that is, the violent or sudden death of a close loved one or the death of a child, cope with psychological distress, while its absence may exacerbate poor physical and psychological outcomes. Yet, a breakdown in social relationships after a loss is not uncommon, and loneliness- particularly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic- may exaggerate that effect for grievers, increasing the risk for poor outcomes,” Joanne Cacciatore, Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, said in a statement.

The biology of grief

There’s quite a sizable body of evidence that suggests grief can significantly affect the health of the bereaved. So much so that it may even kill the bereaved, in some cases.

Studies on bereaved spouses show they have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, infection, cancer, and chronic diseases like diabetes. In the first three months, bereaved parents and spouses are nearly two times more likely to die than those not bereaved. Grief has also been found to aggravate physical pain, increase blood pressure and blood clots, and exacerbate appetite loss, perhaps because grief is known to make people find less pleasure in food.

A 2018 study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology suggests these effects may be due to inflammation in the body. The authors from Rice University found the inflammation levels of widows and widowers in the top one-third of the elevated grief group was 53.4% higher than the bottom one-third.

Social support is crucial for those grieving a loss. And a dog or cat may be your best friend after all

For their new study, Cacciatore and colleagues at Arizona State University surveyed 372 adults who had experienced traumatic grief. Among many other things, the survey also included questions about the participants’ perception of the social support they received immediately following their loss, as well as many months after.

When asked about their overall satisfaction with the social support received following a loved one’s death, 35.7% rated their experience as excellent or good, 26.5% said they received adequate support, and 37.9% rated their support as poor or very poor.

But the most intriguing finding was that 89% of the 248 participants who had pets said they were extremely or mostly satisfied with the support received. Animals were ranked the highest among all forms of social support — higher than friends, family, community members, therapists and counselors, and faith leaders.

When it came to institutional human-to-human support, mortuary staff were ranked as the most effective form of support (65% approval rating), whereas law enforcement and hospital social workers were rated as the least effective in providing support to the grieving at 37% and 35%, respectively.

Examples of effective support included “acts of emotional caring”, such as an empathetic phone call or text message. In the open-ended part of the survey, some of the participants described satisfactory emotional support as:

“Telling me that my grief is valid, that my feelings are real. Basically just allowing me to be,” or “Just letting me mention his name without awkward silence or changing the subject.”

Conversely, examples of unsupportive acts included feeling abandoned by loved ones, feeling as if their grief was being rushed, and not feeling listened to.

The researchers summarize their findings concluding that instrumental and appraisal support were the most effective at relieving bereavement.

“Instrumental support was effective when expressed through helping with meals, childcare, housekeeping, and written notes and gifts. One important aspect of instrumental support deserving of attention may be the classic mistake of saying, “. . .call if you need anything,” without any follow-up. Participants appreciated others actively reaching out to them to offer practical aid. Appraisal support meant connecting with like others through grief support groups, in-person and online, and on social media. Time spent with others, both online and in-person, who share a common tragedy of loss was reported as supportive in these data,” they wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.

woman grief

Widows and widowers who suffer from intense grief risk inflammation that can kill

The grief of losing a life partner can literally kill you. A new study found that people who showed elevated symptoms of grief following their spouse’s death were at risk of inflammation, predisposing them to a heart attack, stroke, and a premature death.

woman grief

Credit: Pixabay.

Researchers at Rice University examined the blood of 99 people whose spouses had recently passed away. They then divided the participants into two groups: those that showed symptoms of elevated grief — not being able to move on, a sense that life is meaningless, inability to accept the reality of loss — and those who didn’t.

The bodily inflammation that widows and widowers in the second group experienced was 17% higher, the authors reported in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. Some suffered heavily from their loss, as the researchers found the inflammation levels of people in the top one-third of the elevated grief group was 53.4% higher than the bottom one-third.

Grief sickens

“Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood,” Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice University, said in a statement. 

“We also know that depression is linked to higher levels of inflammation, and those who lose a spouse are at considerably higher risk of major depression, heart attack, stroke and premature mortality. However, this is the first study to confirm that grief — regardless of people’s levels of depressive symptoms — can promote inflammation, which in turn can cause negative health outcomes.”

Anecdotally-speaking, most people probably know of some older couple in which, after one of them dies, the spouse ends up dying shortly after, despite having been in relatively good health. There’s actually a lot of science that explains why this happens so often.

A 2014 study published in Ageing and Immunity studied two small groups of mourners, one with an average age of 32 and the other with an average age of 72, and similarly-aged control groups of people who had not recently experienced a loss. It found that elderly widows and widowers had reduced function in their neutrophils — a white blood cell used to fight off infections — compared to the non-bereaved peers, making them more vulnerable to potentially fatal infections. Grief has also been found to aggravate physical pain, increase blood pressure and blood clots, and exacerbate appetite loss, perhaps because grief is known to make people find less pleasure in food.

These new findings suggest that grief has a significant impact on our health, adding to a growing body of evidence that suggests those who have been widowed are at a higher risk of premature mortality. Physicians should identify grief-stricken individuals as being at risk and should devise interventions that target these risk factors, like behavioral therapy or drugs.