The coronavirus pandemic brought a new experience of bereavement for families across the UK in that death became more sudden. People of all ages, backgrounds and lifestyles threatened losing their lives if they contracted the virus for which we had no vaccine at that time. What’s more, restrictions on visiting hospitals or mixing households meant people died without a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones. The mourning process had its challenges too, with limits placed on the number of people attending funerals or ceremonies. ‘All of these things interfere with effective ways in which people mourn and grieve,’ says Andy, ‘and that really matters to people.’
Anticipatory grief also became more common following the virus outbreak. This is the term used to describe the death of someone whose passing is expected or imminent – but has not yet happened – often due to a long-term illness or health condition. Many people whose loved ones were moved to Intensive Care Units after contracting Covid-19 would experience anticipatory grief, aware of the virus’ tragically high mortality rate.
So, what can we expect from the grieving process following deaths of this kind and how can we use our understanding to better support people’s experiences of it?
‘You don’t go through [bereavement] in a systematic process,’ Andy says, ‘It’s a different journey for different people.’ While a defined list of the stages of grief can be useful for reference, it does not take into account the individual experiences and non-linear journey of emotions that come with it. ‘Some days we are fully immersed in our grief and want to cry and remember the person, other times we want to be active and carry on with life. Sometimes we gravitate between the two or try to do both.’ What’s common with any kind of bereavement, therefore, is this emotional complexity.
Timescales offered in models of grief and bereavement are equally unsupportive as they suggest an endpoint by which the bereaved will move on. Andy explains that ‘grief is timeless’ and ‘the idea of getting over someone could seem almost offensive.’ Instead, he proposes carrying the loss forward and weaving it into the life of the bereaved. ‘Try to work out how to carry on living and craft your own way of life while remembering the person who has died. It’s about taking their memory with us instead of trying to get over their loss.’
These simple tips can help with processing the loss of a loved one and can be implemented regardless of how much time has passed since the bereavement.
TIME: Take a moment each day to assess how you are feeling and what your needs might be. Some days you may want to get up and move, others might require you to sit down and rest.
SPACE: Give yourself room to step away from social situations you’re not yet ready to confront. For example, you might wish to spend the first Christmas after the death of a loved one alone. That’s okay: do what feels right for you.
STRUCTURE: Routines can be disrupted by a significant bereavement, but they are an important part of life. Set yourself a basic structure with time to eat, sleep and wash each day, adding more when you feel able to.
PEERS: Even if you need time alone while mourning, try not to burn bridges with the people around you. It might feel like everyone has moved on and forgotten about your loss – but that’s not intentional. Keep your friends close to talk to when you’re ready.
SUPPORT: Extra support is always available. Contacting Cruse, your GP or a local support group will provide you with information and resources to help with your bereavement.
Peer support, in addition to the self-care steps listed above, plays a vital role in the experience of bereavement – especially in the age of Covid. The pandemic distanced people from one another to stop the virus spreading, yet this placed an extra barrier between people grieving and their support network, leaving some to mourn alone.
Andy explains that reaching out is the most important and most effective thing we can do to support others dealing with the loss of a loved one. He says, ‘bereaved people continue to tell me that knowing someone is present – even if you don’t want them there – is really supportive.’ But that’s not to say it’s an easy thing to do. People commonly find it difficult to talk about death and mourning and to know what to say to someone in those circumstances. ‘One of the first things you can say is “I’m sorry to hear about your loss.”’ This simple offering of condolence can make the bereaved person feel seen and heard. ‘It’s an acknowledgement,’ Andy says, ‘It’s about communicating that the person isn’t alone.’
While we can all help to look out for one another and offer our support, we should also recognise when extra help is needed. ‘If someone is saying that their life has become meaningless, they have thoughts around harming themselves, or perhaps someone is blaming themselves for the death they’re mourning - that might be an indicator that they need more support.’ Professional support from organisations like Cruse provide that help. The Cruse Bereavement Support website offers access to a free helpline number or webchat function to talk to a professional about death, grief and bereavement while Hub of Hope is an app which is free to download and creates pathways to find the mental health support you need.
The key when it comes to managing grief and bereavement in the age of Covid is to remember: ‘People need different things at different times. But we all need support of some kind.’