Bereavement at the Time of COVID-19

I have been thinking a great deal about the experiences of bereavement at this difficult time during the COVID19 pandemic. I have been wondering how much these experiences might differ from bereavements which occur at other times.

My previous research experience would suggest that many of the experiences will be the same. People may feel the sadness, grief and loneliness that are often experienced at this time. Others might feel some relief that the suffering of their loved one is over, but at the same time feel the personal loss. The same tasks are needed to be undertaken, arranging funerals, speaking to the bank, dealing with the deceased’s affairs. But at the same time, these already difficult experiences may be challenged by the situation we face in lockdown or if we are shielding. There may be no one to hug, no-one to talk to face to face, no place to go if we are unable to leave the house when we need a break. The arrangements for funerals, the visit to the bank, the organising of shopping are likely to be more complicated than at other times.

For others, COVID19 itself may be responsible for the loss of our loved ones. That may bring additional challenges. We might not have been able to be there when our loved one died, we might have been able to be there but unable to touch our loved one. We might have been prepared for our love one to die at some point in the near future, but not just yet. The death might have been completely unexpected. Our experiences might have been made worse by the daily Downing Street briefings, each day announcing yet more deaths. Our loved one might have been a care home where more than one person has died. We might question the decisions that we have previously made.

I wonder how far these experiences will have a lasting impact on our lives. I would hope that whilst these experiences are often distressing and sometime traumatic, our resilience will help us through and as most people do we will cope with bereavement and adjust our lives, if slowly, to our loss.

I have been thinking about some of the advice I might give, based on the experiences of the many widowed and bereaved people I have interviewed over my long research career. First, there is no right or wrong way to grieve or to feel; there is no order in which to do things. Just because you are not behaving as others might do, as long as you are safe then that’s ok. If you need to ask for help then do so, whether it be for practical tasks or for emotional support. Allow yourself to be upset, or angry, or disappointed, or relieved. Second, be selfish. By that I mean put yourself first and be kind to yourself. I have an analogy, which might seem a bit facile, but it’s like on a plane when you are told to put on your oxygen mask before helping anyone else. Third, don’t do anything hastily. Don’t throw out possessions, don’t move house, don’t make decisions you might later regret. Don’t keep busy for the sake of keeping busy – do things which are intrinsically rewarding or pleasant. Try not to worry about changes in eating or sleeping patterns. Try to eat well and take exercise and don’t drink too much. For many people funerals, last wishes and rituals are important. These have become more difficult. If you are not able to fulfil last wishes or have the funeral that was planned for, be kind to yourself. Work with the art of the possible, the person who has died would surely understand. Modern technology is a boon in these times, and if you don’t have the technological skills find someone who can help you out. Pick up the phone and ask.

What advice have my bereaved participants given to me for me to pass on to those who are supporting the bereaved? Again, remember there isn’t a right and wrong way for someone to grieve. Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing – ask how someone is – don’t be worried if they cry, don’t be embarrassed. Words are better than silence. Instead of saying, “let me know if I can do something for you” offer a specific service, the shopping, a meal, virtual company. And make sure you follow through. Good communication is always tricky but it is really important.

The findings I have been talking about are based on research conducted over the last 25 years but never at a time such as we are living through now. The team I am part of is interested in how people are experiencing bereavement during this time (from all causes of death) and in the experiences of health care professionals during this time. If you have experiences which are relevant to this please consider taking part in our research:

https://livpsych.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_6yXOqN3qFN6sioJ