We’re All Accumulating ‘Grief Debt’ Right Now—Will We Ever Be Able To Repay It?

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Almost a full year after the U.S. went into lockdown, folks are grieving, for one reason or another. More than 450,000 families in the U.S. have lost a loved one due to COVID-19; millions became unemployed; and we've all lost our sense of normalcy, our ability to sit down at our favorite restaurant with all of our friends, and the joy of traveling to see long-distance loved ones.

To be sure, these losses vary in magnitude and scope of debilitation, but what's unequivocally true is that right now marks one of the few times in history that every person in the country is experiencing some form of loss at the same time, a phenomenon some psychologists are calling "collective grief."

Experts In This Article
  • Dorothy Holinger, Ph.D., Dorothy Holinger, Ph.D., is a Harvard Medical School psychologist and the author of The Anatomy of Grief.
  • James Gordon, MD, Harvard-trained psychiatrist and founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine
  • Kahina Louis, PsyD, Kahina Louis, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of the therapy and consultation practice Strengths and Solutions.

Making matters more difficult are the tragedy waves that relentlessly continue to crash, challenging us to keep our head above water when we can't even catch our breath. And the accumulation of this emotional grief has led many to experience "grief debt." This happens when we withdraw energy from our emotional bank to process every instance of strife, and those instances compound one another, depleting energy further until there's nothing left to withdraw. But how can we repay this debt, given that the pandemic's harms continue to pile on?

The trauma of grief

"What causes grief—the loss of someone, something, or the sense of ourselves that we miss terribly—is traumatic," says James S. Gordon, MD, a psychiatrist and author of Transforming Trauma: The Path To Hope and Healing ($18), who has devoted his career to helping people process and heal from trauma. The trauma of grief itself can affect our mental health—often manifesting as depression or anxiety—as well as our physical bodies, he says.

According to Harvard Medical School psychologist Dorothy P. Holinger, PhD, author of The Anatomy of Grief, which details how grief can affect the mind and body, "in addition to depression and anxiety, grief can make the body physically ill." This can surface in a variety of ways, she adds, including digestive distress, exhaustion, or, in extreme cases, cardiac issues. Both experts agree that the first step towards healing from these mental and physical effects of grief is to acknowledge the loss and each individual source of it—even if and when those losses and sources of loss are overlapping.

"When you suppress a trauma, you may push down certain emotions, but [they don't] go away, They can surface in your thoughts and actions without you even realizing it." —Kahina A. Louis, PsyD

Is this more complicated than processing a singular trauma? Absolutely. It's why licensed clinical psychologist Kahina A. Louis, PsyD, says professional therapy can be an especially helpful strategy; though complicated, working through the grieving process is necessary for healing. Without doing so, "what tends to happen is that you start focusing on the next tragedy before you've worked through the first one," Dr. Louis says says. That unprocessed trauma can in turn become suppressed, and "when you suppress a trauma, you may push down certain emotions, but [they don't] go away. They can surface in your thoughts and actions without you even realizing it."

Besides seeking out professional therapy, Dr. Gordon says setting aside time to honor your grief is crucial for processing it and healing. "My brother died of COVID-19, and it's been hard for me. I felt a combination of grief and anger that I had to let out," he says. "So I have given myself time in the morning to cry, scream, move my body, or do whatever else to let these emotions out. Another helpful technique can be journaling and writing out your emotions—just writing down what comes up for you." The key, he says, is doing something. Otherwise your emotions—from one traumatic event or multiple—may get buried inside.

Many of us are not okay, and mental health experts want you to get comfortable acknowledging it. Learn more in the video below:


Working through grief debt collectively as a society

All three experts say there's another important step in working through grief debt: finding connection. Dr. Louis says that, for better and worse, it's not hard to find others who are grieving a similar loss. For example, if you are experiencing both death of a loved one and being newly unemployed, it can be healing to join a virtual support group for people who have lost someone to COVID-19 and also stay in contact with a friend who is also newly unemployed; both sources of trauma deserve attention.

And while the airplane safety rule of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others applies here, Dr. Louis says it's important to acknowledge that we don't all have the same amount of grief debt; some people are acquiring more than others. If your debt is light, or even if it's heavy but you still have emotional energy, Dr. Gordon suggests reaching out to others who feel completely bankrupt. "I have a friend who got COVID-19, also lost his job, and is very isolated at home. So I make it a point to call him every day," he says. "Sometimes the calls are short and we don't talk about what he's going through at all—we talk about other things, like the woman he likes—but it's a way of being there."

Just as important, Dr. Gordon adds, is to reach out to others when your own grief debt necessitates it. "My brother's death was very difficult for me," he says. "On top of that, my ex-wife got COVID-19 and when that happened, I felt overwhelmed with all the grief happening in my life. One morning, I picked up the phone, called a friend, and said, 'I'm really overwhelmed.' Just two minutes into talking with her, I started to feel a little better and less alone. It's important to express our grief."

Both Dr. Louis and Dr. Gordon say that collective grieving has the potential to have a positive effect on our society: more empathy. "Now, with so many people going through similar experiences, it would be hard to move past 2021 without empathy being at the forefront of your life," Dr. Louis says. "It increases your understanding of anxiety, depression, and grief. And that understanding is going to make us more connected to each other."

Can grief debt be repaid?

Acknowledging trauma, seeking therapy, crying, journaling, and connecting to others are all steps that can be taken to process grief, but Dr. Holinger says there's something else that's important, too: acknowledgment on a national level.

"There was a moment during the presidential inauguration when President Biden and Vice President Harris lit 400 candles, each one representing 1,000 people who died from COVID-19. This was a step toward healing that we needed on a national level," she says. "We needed the acknowledgment from our country's leaders of what we have experienced and are going through. Individually acknowledging grief is important, and it's also important that it is acknowledged by others—particularly leaders."

Individually acknowledging grief is important, and it's also important that it is acknowledged by others—particularly leaders.

In this way, the grief debt resulting from the pandemic is a shared burden to be paid back together, not alone. But Dr. Gordon says it's also important to realize that it will never be paid back in full, and some days you may feel a deep sadness for a traumatic event that happened long ago. Dr. Holinger agrees. "I had a patient who started seeing me after his mother died. We spent our sessions working through that grief and then one day he came in feeling sick. He had forgotten that it was the anniversary of his father's death, as we had been focusing on his mother," she says. "Grief can come back in these ways."

While working through grief won't shield you from feeling sad again, it can give you the time and space to be able to acknowledge it when it does come up—even years down the road. In fact, Dr. Holinger says recovering from what's happening now requires attention in the present and in the future. "Because of the number of different tragedies many people are experiencing right now, they are just trying to make it through and real healing will be delayed," she says.

Curious when an epidemiologist has to say about the end of the pandemic? Check out the video below for more intel:

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