HomeResourcesGeneral resourcesThe ABCs of grief – and when to get help

The ABCs of grief – and when to get help

Thousands of South Africans may already be mourning the loss of their loved ones as the COVID-19 death toll rises. Here’s what to expect.

What is grief? 

Grief is a normal process of adjustment everybody will go through when they lose someone or something valuable to them. It’s always a difficult process, but most people will get through it in the end. 

What does grief feel like? 

Psychologists often use a five-step model to help explain the emotions people might experience while they’re grieving the loss of a loved one. It goes: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These emotions don’t necessarily come one at a time, or one after the other. It is natural to experience more than one of these emotions at the same time or go back and forth between them.  

Here are some examples of what you might go through: 

1. Danger

People may not want to accept that their loved one died of COVID-19, rather that they died of neglect. 

2. Anger 

Anger towards the family member who exposed the loved one who passed away is totally normal too, experts explain. You may experience anger at South Africa’s public health system. 

3. Bargaining

When family members die suddenly, the bargaining phase can be very intense. People may wonder whether they could have done more, say by taking the person to hospital quicker, or spending more time with that person. For many people, the country’s national lockdown has prevented them from being with family members for months. 

4. Depression

It is natural to go through a period of deep sadness when somebody close to you passes away. 

5. Acceptance

People learn to adapt to life without the person who died. It’s not that they forget about them or never think about them again, but they have integrated the loss into their lives.

How does COVID-19 impact on grief and bereavement? 

The coronavirus pandemic and the regulations put in place to stop the spread of the virus has made grieving more difficult for many people. For example, people might not be able to have the funeral their loved one would have wanted. 

Their loved one may also die suddenly in hospital and with little communication from doctors. This can also make grieving more difficult. 

And, usually, people would have time to process the loss and get used to the process, but that might not be the case now since people may have more than one family member in hospital and could be anticipating another loss. The loss of income can also cause grief. 

When should I ask for help? 

For most people, grief is not overwhelming in the end. In some cases, however, people can become flooded with an endless feeling of desolation that doesn’t get better and can stretch for years after the person passed away. Those instances are referred to as “complicated grief” and affect between 10% and 20% of bereaved people, studies have shown.  

These cases need to be treated by a mental health professional. 

Where can I ask for help? 

If you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one, get in touch with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. 

The mental health advocacy group has a 24 hour helpline. Their trained counsellors can speak to you or refer you to a psychologist. 

  • The number for Sadag’s round the clock helpline: 0800 456 789
  • Call a counsellor between 8am and 8pm from Monday to Sunday at: 011 234 4837
  • Suicidal emergency line: 0800 567 467

Compiled from interviews with bereavement expert Joan Marston, clinical psychologist from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group Zamo Mbele, and a presentation by social worker Nelia Drenth on a July webinar hosted by The Association of Palliative Care Practitioners.

Joan van Dyk was a health journalist, senior health journalist and news editor at Bhekisisa between 2017 and 2023.