COVID-19 was the third most common cause of death between March 2020 and October 2021 in the US, behind only heart disease and cancer, according to a recent study.
Older adults face the highest risk of dying from COVID-19, but coronavirus infection remains a serious risk for younger people as well. In 2021, COVID-19 was the leading cause of death for adults ages 45 to 54, the second leading cause for adults ages 35 to 44, and the fourth leading cause for those ages 15 to 34.
As sociologists who study population health, we have been evaluating how the loss of a loved one to COVID-19 has affected people’s well-being. Our research shows that more than 9 million people have lost a close family member to COVID-19 in the US, making them vulnerable to mental anguish.
The distinction of mourning for deaths from COVID-19
Researchers have an idea of what constitutes “good” and “bad” deaths. Bad deaths are those that involve pain or discomfort and happen in isolation. Their unexpectedness also makes these deaths more harrowing. People whose loved ones die “bad deaths” tend to report greater mental anguish than those whose loved ones died under more favorable circumstances.
COVID-19 deaths often have many characteristics of “bad” deaths. They are preceded by physical pain and distress, often occur in isolated hospital settings, and occur suddenly, leaving family members unprepared. The ongoing nature of the pandemic has inflicted an additional layer of agony as people grieve through a time of prolonged social isolation, economic precariousness, and general uncertainty.
In another recent study, our team used national survey data from 27 countries to assess whether the mental health impacts of COVID-19 deaths are more severe than deaths from other causes. We focus on the case of spousal death and compare two groups of people: those whose spouses died of COVID-19 in the first wave of the pandemic and those whose spouses died of other causes just before the pandemic began. We found that COVID-19 widows and widowers face higher rates of depression and loneliness than expected based on mental health outcomes of widows and widowers before the pandemic.
Secondary population health consequences of COVID-19 deaths
The outsized effects of COVID-19 deaths on the mental health of bereaved spouses are concerning because we estimate that nearly 500,000 people have already lost a spouse to COVID-19 in the US alone. people face after losing a loved one can also lead to a decline in physical health and even increase a person’s risk of death.
Our research suggests that COVID-19 not only increased rates of family bereavement, but that people who lost loved ones to the coronavirus felt particularly distressed afterward. But we only study widowhood; Future research should identify potentially unique health, social, and economic consequences of COVID-19 losses for other bereaved family members.
With COVID-19 accounting for 1 in 8 deaths between March 2020 and October 2021, there are millions of people who could benefit greatly from financial, social, and mental health support. It is also critical to continue taking steps to prevent future deaths from COVID-19. Each averted death not only saves one life, but also saves numerous loved ones from the harm that follows these tragedies.