Campus News

Public health professor discusses the health impacts of grief

Toni Miles, who recently retired from her position as professor of epidemiology, biostatistics and health policy and management at the College of Public Health, discussed how grief can cause physical health problems with WBUR.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, deaths in the United States occurred at an incredibly high frequency and impacted many people across the country. The loss of life is expected to have significant impacts on the family and friends of COVID-19 victims who are now experiencing grief.

Miles related the current situation to a past study that she completed that analyzed some of the long-term impacts of grief. Her study was conducted between 2018-2019, before the onset of the pandemic.

“It turns out that 45% of the population aged 18 and over were newly bereaved in that two-year window,” she said. That number may now be an underestimate, but the findings can still be applied.

The study found that people who were experiencing grief could actually see physical symptoms including high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, and sleeping troubles.

“People who are bereaved are one-and-a-half times more likely to visit a doctor 20 or more times in the two-year period after bereavement,” said Miles.

She also observed that grief can lead to an increase in alcohol consumption and alcohol addiction. Heavy drinking can influence hospitalization, death and “all kinds of outcome that you might not believe are related to bereavement but are,” she said.

“We really do need to have more empathy recognizing that if someone says ‘someone died that I’m really close to,’ we need to take a moment and find out what they have lost in addition to losing that person,” she said.

In the context of the pandemic, a lot of conversations have been started about accountability, particularly among those who have chosen not to get vaccinated. Miles said that this isn’t the point.

“If we don’t, as a culture, understand that people suffer when they lose someone and not just make disparaging remarks about what killed them,” she said, “we’re not going to solve this problem.”