Grieving in a Global Pandemic

Cruse Scotland Volunteer, Graham Stevenson, outlines how the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic is affecting bereavement, and shares some tips for connecting, reaching out, coping with difficult emotions and looking after yourself during these difficult times.

September 11, 2021

Bereavement is a normal part of life, and something everyone will face sooner or later. But if you’ve found this post, you’re probably also aware of the fact that it’s not a single event, but more like a journey, and sometimes quite a complex one. It takes time, although we can’t tell how long or exactly what the route will be, as no two bereavements are identical.

But no doubt you’ll also be painfully aware that this year in the grip of a global pandemic, everything has changed, bringing lots more challenges. Everything seems to have got harder - much harder! This is particularly true of bereavement, which has been experienced by so many families this year.

Grief in normal times

Even in normal times, when you lose a loved one it can feel as if your whole world is turned upside down and coping can be very difficult. Usually, it’s support from our family and close friends that gets us through the immediate aftermath of a death, and as days pass, helps us start to come to terms with our loss.

Funerals too, across many cultures, not only honour the dead but also perform the vital function of bringing together friends, family and community in mutual comfort and support.

In other words, for most of us, it’s our “support network” which is the single most important thing in promoting healthy grieving and helping us bear our loss, so the feeling of being overwhelmed gradually gives way to a growing ability to cope again and reconnect once more with the ordinary pleasures of life. We still remember the person who has died and their place in our lives, but gradually with more joy than pain.

Yet of course, even in normal times, not everyone is lucky enough to have such a circle of friends and family - or sometimes the path of grieving seems to be particularly rocky. That’s generally when people turn to bereavement organisations such as Cruse, where skilled help is available to give support during at least part of this journey.

Grief during Covid

But this year in the pandemic, grief has sorely affected lots more of us.

First of all, many more families have had to face the pain of losing loved ones, often before their time. The toll of the virus has been immense, especially on the elderly, frail and vulnerable. Losing cherished members of the family in such difficult circumstances has been very hard to bear, leaving relatives with a sense of trauma. Some families have also had to cope with the pain of several deaths from different generations in a short time.

While every one of these deaths is a tragedy to be grieved, people from ethnic minorities and those living in deprived circumstances have been hit particularly hard by this virus. Also, even people with non-Covid conditions have been affected due to stretched medical services. So overall, most of us have either experienced grief this year or know someone else who has.

To make matters worse, the ban on visiting anyone in care homes and hospitals has brought immense sadness for many of us. Whether or not patients or residents had the virus, regulations have denied people any close contact with sick or elderly relatives, who have depended on the dedication of carers, nurses and doctors. People with dementia have gone downhill more quickly due to isolation. Families have often been unable even to say goodbye to relatives in their last hours. At the same time, televised scenes of Covid wards and exhausted staff have added to our impression of the overwhelming scale of traumatic deaths.

Ironically, even funerals have been so restricted that they can barely fulfil the vital functions for mourners of not only honouring the one who has died, but also bringing comfort and support to those grieving. This has made families feel resentful at not being able to provide the kind of service they would have wanted for their loved one, while others have felt excluded.

In the community too, there have been considerable restrictions on people or families mixing, while those at severe risk from long-standing health conditions have had to “shield” totally isolated from human company - so hard when often all we really want in times of great trouble or loss is a hug or a squeeze of the hand.

Another problem is that the activities, pursuits and entertainment that we might normally turn to as bereavement progresses to help us cope and return to normal life have been either severely cut back or stopped altogether. In addition, as more of us have been working from home or restricted by lockdown, our routines have been disturbed, adding to the consequences of the pandemic on our sleep patterns and mental health, which are then likely to be further impacted by any bereavement.

Additional anxiety and worry

This has also been a time of extreme worry when lots of additional losses have affected us, depriving many of income, work, entire businesses and in some cases all prospects. Even though communities have stepped up to offer what support they can, for some people it’s impossible right now to see a way ahead, or a future.

It is against this background of separation and multiple losses that bereavement can seem too hard to bear, a loss too great in its enormity.

Feelings in turmoil

In addition, there is no doubt that the turmoil of feelings we associate with bereavement are being amplified by the pandemic. It is understandable that when Covid can progress from mild symptoms to critical illness and death in a such a comparatively short period of time, those left behind can feel a strong sense of disbelief or numbness, followed by intense anger or guilt and sometimes the need to find targets for blame, whether at local or government level, or even blaming ourselves.

A fundamentally different challenge

But why are we finding things so desperately challenging this time?

Our nation and most others have faced and overcome in our history many difficulties and disasters, such as World Wars or economic disaster and famine, sometimes spanning many years. But in all these situations, the one thing we could always rely on until now was human contact, when we gathered together to support each other in times of trouble. So it is a cruel stroke of fate that the very thing we (in common with all mammals) need in order to survive and thrive - namely Social Connection - is exactly what puts us at greatest risk from Covid, since the virus too thrives in conditions of close human contact.

How to cope with grief during the Coronavirus pandemic

So, what can help people who are grieving?

Basically, we need to use new ways of doing the things we’ve always done to support each other and ourselves in tough times, especially the challenge of being connected, while keeping safe - in other words, to remember “Physical Distancing but Social Connection”.

But this is where fate has brought one piece of good fortune which is particularly relevant - the internet and mobile phone scenes have blossomed out of all recognition from even ten years ago, especially on making group video chats. Of course, unfortunately not everyone is yet able to benefit from the digital scene. Yet, however you do it, STAY CONNECTED - do whatever it takes to stay in touch - by phone, online, by the popular rediscovered pastime of writing letters and cards, or meeting out in the cold with umpteen extra layers! Connection is vital for our mental health and even more important in times of grief. It can help particularly with feelings of loneliness.

  • At this time, while being a lifesaver in terms of the virus, isolation is particularly hard. So make the effort to prioritise staying in touch - don’t face things alone.
  • If you are struggling, be prepared to reach out for help or connection without embarrassment - don’t wait for the world to come to you. At this time, make contact particularly with others who will listen and generally help you feel better, and not so much those who tend to be negative or wear you out. You can use the telephone to stay in touch and hear people’s voices, or if worried about becoming too emotional, use texts and emails if these are available to you.
  • Take advantage of every opportunity to make micro-connections - even a wave to passers-by in the street, or a greeting to the neighbours outside the house lifts spirits, both theirs and yours! (Dog-walkers are generally adept at this!)
  • Make a real effort to do or say ONE positive thing each day - this can gradually be increased, to help you build a more positive mindset, and again can help with connection.
  • Lots of families and groups of friends, and even some bereavement groups are now operating by video on Zoom or the like with chats, games and quizzes, which can really help you feel connected.
  • Age UK can organise a regular weekly phone call with a specific volunteer on their Telephone Friendship Service to help combat loneliness (free advice line 0800 678 1602)

DIFFICULT EMOTIONS - Emotions can be very mixed after bereavement, when you can feel as if you are on a rollercoaster. These feelings are normal, but during Covid they may well be even more intense than usual.

  • Find someone you trust to talk things through, rather than trying to avoid them, as bottling up our feelings is seldom helpful in the long run.
  • Don’t compare your bereavement with other people’s or think theirs is somehow worse and that you shouldn’t feel as sad as them. Your loss is completely valid too and does not diminish or take away from anyone else’s loss.
  • Give yourself permission to cry if you want to - it’s natural and not a sign of weakness.
  • On the other hand, avoid too much bad news as this will only exacerbate difficult feelings.
  • If there is no one available for you to discuss your emotions in grieving, Cruse is here for you, with our free helpline and webchat open daily for contact (0808 802 6161).
  • A word of caution - during the turbulence both of bereavement and of Covid, it is best to avoid any outspoken reactions in the heat of the moment which you might regret later. It is also best not to pour out all your emotions on social media, as these can be very intimate feelings which you might regret broadcasting too widely. Also, don’t make any major decisions in the period following bereavement, as it can be hard to think straight!
  • And although people do sometimes feel in the depths of despair and wish they were no longer here after a bereavement, if the feeling ever gets so intense for you that you think you might take action on it, contact either a trusted friend or the Samaritans (on 116 123) Don’t think that nobody cares.

HELP WITH PRACTICAL PROBLEMS - Again, your motto is “reach out” - either to trusted family members and friends or to relevant agencies (but beware scams from unexpected phone calls, text messages, or emails).

Age UK can offer support and advice to older people (free advice line 0800 678 1602).

Many communities or faith groups have also set up local help for people struggling, whether through organising food banks, delivering meals, shopping or connecting with the lonely by phone. They will have a publicised contact. Please don’t feel too embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help. They exist for people like you and operate without judgement for everyone who needs help. You deserve it as much as anyone else.

LOOK AFTER YOUR OWN HEALTH - This is important, but easy to forget. The upheaval of bereavement can make a lot of demands on your personal resources and you will cope better if your physical and mental health are on an even keel. It’s very common to feel anxious or depressed after a bereavement and also to experience a number of physical symptoms or minor illnesses. These may settle after a few weeks but if you feel very unwell, or symptoms persist for more than a few weeks, consult your GP.

  • Try to maintain a routine, which can be difficult, the more so when staying at home especially feeling you’re in an unreal world brought on by Covid disruption. Get out every day if possible, connect with nature if you can, or do some exercise indoors. Keeping moving, even with emotional pain, is much more beneficial than staying in bed sinking further into one’s own grief or despair.
  • Sleep disruption and nightmares can also be troublesome due to grieving or the uncertainty of the pandemic. Aim for a regular sleep pattern, avoiding overstimulation or exercise before bed. (Easier said than done, but see scot for helpful suggestions).
  • Disturbances in appetite are common. After a loss, some people want to eat all the time, while others at first may not feel able to eat much. However, if possible, try to stick to regular mealtimes even if you only eat a little, and aim for healthy choices. If you don’t feel like cooking, ask friends for help.
  • Breathing exercises, mindfulness and meditation are other helpful approaches when we are troubled by anxious or repetitive thoughts and difficult emotions (see websites scot and NHSinform.scot) These practices are increasingly recognised by medical and mental health professionals as having beneficial effects on our brainwaves and mental state, helping to combat worries, anxiety and agitation.

REMEMBERING THE PERSON WHO HAS DIED

At first it can be very hard to think about our loss. Sometimes we repeatedly feel haunted by the pain of the person’s last few days, the more so when the death was traumatic. Gradually, however, this tends to ease (although it can take quite a long time) often through sharing our memories and also through our own efforts to remember positive times.

  • Amongst useful approaches are making a memory box or memory album holding items connected to fond memories.
  • Some people find solace in creativity - and they may like to make a piece of art or craft work to remember the person.
  • Some may make a little memorial indoors with candle, flower arrangement, photograph or whatever seems right and comforting. Others take pleasure in making and planting a quiet and peaceful outdoor space for reflection.
  • For some people, it is also important to honour the memory and life of their loved one through fundraising or helping in other ways those less fortunate.

Finally, remember that if you need additional help in your grieving journey, or are finding bereavement particularly traumatic, Cruse Scotland is here for you. Call our free helpline: 0808 802 6161, or use the webchat service on this site.

 

Grieving in a Global Pandemic