Covid-19 leading to grief disorder, psychologists warn

Reverend Didiza from Kagiso Methodist Church conducts the funeral of an 82-year-old woman who succumbed to Covid 19. / ALON SKUY
Reverend Didiza from Kagiso Methodist Church conducts the funeral of an 82-year-old woman who succumbed to Covid 19. / ALON SKUY

Covid-19 is giving rise to prolonged grief disorder for heartbroken families who have lost loved ones to the virus.

As the number of Covid-19 deaths increases daily, more and more South African families are struggling with not having closure because of stringent restrictions to contain the spread of the virus.

Psychologists have warned that losing a loved one to Covid-19 or during the pandemic could complicate grief further.

"The restrictions brought about due to Covid-19 are likely to increase the incidence of prolonged grief disorder, or what psychologists commonly refer to as complicated grief.

"This is because many of the processes that aid our healing are not possible," said Durban psychologist Rakhi Beekrum.

"The restrictions on visiting loved ones in hospital mean that many will die alone, without having said goodbye.

"Family members are likely to struggle with closure, not knowing what their loved ones' final moments were like."

Beekrum said rituals played a significant role in healing, and Covid-19 restrictions further affected the grieving and healing process.

"From prayers when one is very ill in hospital to bathing the body, the proximity one is allowed to the casket and the number of people that can attend funerals and other ceremonies, these have all been impacted due to Covid-19.

"One of the harshest realities that we are facing is the loss of practical and emotional support that used to be readily available from family and friends," Beekrum said.

"Traditionally, when there is a death in the family, family and friends take over the arrangements so as to unburden the bereaved. Now we are seeing immediate family members unable to participate in funerals and other rituals as they have also tested positive for Covid-19. Those who want to support the family are unable to."

Johannesburg psychologist Dr Ingrid Artus said families were not getting closure after losing a loved one to the virus, which complicated their grieving process.

"Our current unusual situation means that people cannot obtain access to their critically ill loved ones in order to resolve unfinished business and say goodbye in a loving manner. This can compound a sense of guilt and regret that can cause the grief process to become stuck."

Artus said this often caused debilitating depression.

"Furthermore, Covid-19-related deaths can occur very suddenly, which adds to the trauma," she said.

"In a culturally rich country such as ours, burial traditions are another important component to finding meaningful closure. Various restrictions implemented to curb the spread of the virus have also meant that these rituals cannot be performed in the traditional manner, leaving many grieving families with a sense of being robbed of their desire to honour a loved one's memory."

A US study has found that every Covid-19 death could have a ripple effect on the mental and physical health of approximately nine surviving family members. The study has unpacked the possible extent to which a Covid-19 death could affect a family.

For example, if the virus kills 190,000 people, 1.7-million will experience the loss of a close relative, said researcher Ashton Verdery. He said the multiplier could serve as an indicator to help raise awareness about the scale of the disease and the ripple effects it might have on a community, and prepare officials and business leaders to manage the effects.

"It's very helpful to have a sense of the potential impacts that the pandemic could have," he said. "And, for employers, it calls attention to policies around family leave and paid leave."


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