COVID-19 death more unexpected and traumatic than other types of deaths

COVID-19 death more unexpected and traumatic than other types of deaths

COVID-19 was the third-most-common cause of death between March 2020 and October 2021 in the U.S., behind only heart disease and cancer, according to a recent study.

Older adults face the greatest risk of dying from COVID-19, but infection with the coronavirus remains a serious risk for younger people, too. In 2021, COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in adults aged 45 to 54, the second leading cause for adults aged 35 to 44 and the fourth leading cause for those aged 15 to 34.

As sociologists who study population health, we have been assessing how losing 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 relative to COVID-19 in the U.S. This dramatic rise in bereavement is troubling because our research finds that COVID-19 bereavement not only increases people’s risk of depression, but can make them uniquely vulnerable to mental distress.

Researchers have a sense 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 distressing. People whose loved ones die “bad deaths” tend to report greater mental distress than those whose loved ones died in more favorable circumstances.

COVID-19 deaths often bear many hallmarks of “bad” deaths. They are preceded by physical pain and distress, often occur in isolated hospital settings and happen suddenly – leaving family members unprepared. The ongoing nature of the pandemic has inflicted an added layer of agony, as individuals are grieving during a time of protracted social isolation, economic precarity and general uncertainty.

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