How These Four Walls reveals the scale and impact of Covid-19 Grief and Bereavement

In the latest Covid Matters podcast, we found out about the stories behind short film These Four Walls, which presents stories around grief and bereavement during the Covid pandemic.

We were joined on the podcast by Ellie Harrison, the writer and director of These Four Walls, as well as the film’s principal investigators: Dr Lucy Selman from the University of Bristol, and Dr Emily Harrop from Cardiff University. Both Lucy and Emily are social scientists by background and work in palliative care with a particular interest in grief and bereavement. Lucy is also the founding director of the Good Grief Festival, which hosts free talks, webinars, workshops and other events that provide space for conversations around bereavement and loss, as well as building a supportive grief community. 

Ellie is an artist and activist whose work includes The Grief Series: a sequence of seven projects that present and explore ideas around grief, each one produced in collaboration with another artist as well as with community engagement. This project, the Good Grief Festival, and These Four Walls all aim to create safe and welcoming spaces for the stories and feelings that people have around loss and bereavement to be heard in. In the podcast, Ellie talks about the need that she feels there is for people to be able to do this in a way that validates, normalises, and offers comfort to peoples’ grief journeys. 

As principal investigators for These Four Walls, Lucy and Emily lead a team of researchers who conducted a UK-wide study of more than 700 people. All participants had been bereaved during the time period from the end of March 2020 to the end of that year. The research involved surveys, as well as some interviews, and explored peoples’ experiences at end of life, as well as of funerals and the kind of support they had needed (but perhaps hadn’t been able to get). 

Most participants reported feeling loneliness and isolation, and a third said that they had not been given information about bereavement support services. Many reported that those around them often seemed to find it awkward to talk about the bereavement, that they didn’t know what to say, and that this was made worse when contact was not able to be face-to-face. Being unable to meet up with friends and family, hold a funeral in the usual way, or engage in other social and cultural ways of processing grief greatly affected peoples’ bereavement process. Lucy notes that those who faced barriers to accessing their support network early in their grief journey were often affected in how they made sense of their loss, and in how they coped later on. This has had an impact on mental health and longer-term support needs of bereaved people; since the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in those seeking professional help around grief. 

The These Four Walls film uses real responses and direct quotes from the research surveys and interviews. Ellie narrates the film, whilst actors voice and represent the varied accounts in this artistic piece that is poignant but not sensationalist, moving but also accessible. The podcast discusses the background and motivation for the film being made and reveals themes from the study’s qualitative data - as well as how we can respond to them.

Ellie speaks of finding it a challenge to capture and portray so many stories in a short film in a way that bore witness to the unprecedented situation that people had gone through. However, the team all felt that it was important to communicate the research findings sensitively but authentically through a medium that would engage a range of audiences. As Lucy explains, they wanted “to disseminate the findings of the research, not just to academic communities through research papers and presentations, but…(to) reach the public and raise as much awareness as we can”.  Through learning about how the pandemic affected the various stages of peoples’ journey of losing a loved one - from whether they were able to be with them when they died, to what kind of funeral the restrictions permitted, to practical challenges that they encountered, to whether they could mourn and grieve with others – the project hoped to be able to make recommendations for services and professionals to take forwards.

In the podcast, Lucy, Emily and Ellie share things that they each learned from the study, as well as findings that did not come as a surprise to them. For example, Emily talks about the research highlighting the grief journey as a very individual thing where the type of support, and timing of when it is needed, can vary a lot from person to person. This insight led to one of the study’s recommendations being that bereavement support should be tailored to different groups of people depending on factors such as culture, and when they can be available to access it. Similarly, Lucy explained how she was struck by the practical difficulties that she learned people had faced, such as around death administration and adhering to the changing government rules. Access to support was identified as another challenge; many had encountered long waiting lists, or felt confused about their eligibility for services. A lot of people also struggled to get their needs met by online or phone services. Often, by the time face-to-face services were available again, they questioned whether they could justify using them because of the time that had passed since their bereavement. This was echoed by those who had been unable to hold proper funerals; when considering whether to hold a memorial after restrictions had lifted, they wondered if too much time had passed. 

Yet without being able to go through usual bereavement processes and rituals, Lucy says, a lot of people have been isolated in their grief, and been left with a lack of closure around their loss. Many are carrying trauma around the circumstances in which their loved one died, as well as uncertainty about how to move forwards with their grieving because the pandemic has disrupted its natural journey and stages. These Four Walls, The Grief Series and its grief toolkit, and the Good Grief Festival each give an opportunity for connection and cohesion, and for recognising that grief is a natural process that most people encounter at some point in their lives. All share an aim to help people make meaning, feel validated and keep the conversation about grief going without taboo. Ellie wants people to know that “it’s certainly not too late to express those feelings, or mark those rites of passage for those losses”.  

Although the podcast and the film itself convey the loneliness, sadness, trauma, and barriers to getting help that people have faced during the pandemic, it also celebrates the positive themes of the study. Stories of resilience, bravery, companionship, compassion, and ingenuity have also been given voice. Ellie notes that she is already seeing support become more tailored to different communities, emphasising that, as a society, we must continue to develop this. In documenting diverse experiences from such a large group of people, the project has collected and communicated various challenges that those bereaved during 2020 had to deal with, and ways that their needs have often been unmet. In seeking to bring these findings to a variety of audiences, These Four Walls can raise awareness for professionals, service providers and for all of us about how to better support grief.

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