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As Covid Deaths Rise, Lingering Grief Gets a New Name

Wherever Lia Catanzaro goes, she can’t escape the reminders of the disease that took away her father, Paul, in June 2020: the masks, the spaced out restaurant tables, the heated vaccine debates. She has a physical response to it all: her chest tightens, she starts to freeze and she has to remind herself to breathe. The 35-year-old social media manager from Cranston, R.I., left her job and deactivated her social media accounts, and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and complicated grief.

“There’s the number of how many people who have been lost to Covid, but not a lot of focus on how hellish it is in the aftermath,” she said. “There’s no playbook, no advice from other generations.”

Like so many others, Ms. Catanzaro and Ms. Garza Tulip couldn’t be with their parents in their last moments. Grief counselors say that Covid deaths may be as traumatic as losing someone suddenly and violently, like to a suicide, murder or fatal car crash. “They can’t get to that person as they are dying; they can’t hold that person,” said Dr. Ted Rynearson, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington and medical director of grief services at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health. “They are often left with an unfinished story.”

Having to grieve without the support of others can add to the pain, Dr. Prigerson said. She knows this personally. Her mother died after battling Covid, too. It wasn’t until eight months later that she could finally hold a memorial service with family, with guitar playing and singing and swaying. After that, she was able to sleep better at night.

Prolonged grief disorder is associated with a greater risk for sleep disorders, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, hospitalization and suicide attempts. But experts say some interventions may help to lower the risk of developing P.G.D. symptoms.

Robert A. Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition and editor of the journal Death Studies, believes there are conscious actions people can take before suffering a loss that may help to mitigate the grieving process. They include not waiting to tell loved ones how much they mean to you, working to resolve conflicts with family members before serious illness or death, and cultivating a broad circle of support who can draw close when losses occur. “None of these will prevent grief, but they can help us integrate and bear with inevitable losses with greater strength, support and wisdom,” he said.

Research released this summer suggests that if social workers can help caregivers acknowledge and prepare for their loved one’s impending death, that could help stave off P.G.D. symptoms and other complications of bereavement. Reframing negative thoughts after a loss may help, too, Dr. Prigerson said, such as shifting from a belief that “No one will ever know/love/appreciate me like the deceased person,” to “Others may know/love/appreciate me in different ways.” Equally important is doing things to enhance a sense of well-being and inner calm, as well as practicing self-care — such as exercise, healthful eating and regular sleep.

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