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‘All the usual channels of support have been curtailed’: How the pandemic has reshaped our experience of grief

Olivia Petter
·7-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Grief is complicated, and everyone experiences it differently. But it’s usually something people go through alone, even when family or close friends are also mourning the loss. The coronavirus crisis has taken the lives of more than 127,000 people in the UK, in turn turning grief into a collective experience as opposed to an individual one.

Restrictions have also made it harder – and in many cases impossible – to say goodbye to loved ones, with limitations imposed on everything from hospital visits to funerals. The democratising aspect of the pandemic has meant that few have been spared these difficulties.

This weekend, QueenElizabeth II will say goodbye to her husband of 73 years, the Duke of Edinburgh, in a small funeral attended by just 30 guests in line with government guidelines. Normally, the death of a senior member of the royal family would be a high-profile affair, attended by a hundreds-strong guestlist of family members, friends, political figures and celebrities paying their respects, with thousands gathering nearby to offer their condolences. In this case, though, Prince Philip will be commemorated in a low-key service, at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. The Queen, who must maintain social distancing from those outside of her household, will sit alone at the ceremony.

“The Queen is no different from any other man, woman or child who has lost someone during this pandemic,” says royal biographer Penny Junor. Of course, Her Majesty has lost loved ones before, having had to say goodbye to her sister, Princess Margaret, and The Queen Mother, both within one month of each other in 2002. “But she’s always had her husband beside her to help during those periods of grief,” notes Junor. “Now, on Saturday, no one will even put their arms around her.”

Grieving during a pandemic is a very unique experience. Not only have people not been permitted to arrange regular funerals, they’ve also had to, in many cases, come to terms with the idea that their loved ones have died alone given that families and friends were not permitted to visit coronavirus wards to say goodbye in case of infection. “They might have also been unable to visit their loved one in the chapel of rest, and dress them in the clothes that they would have chosen” says Dr John Wilson, author and director of the Bereavement Service in the York St John University’s Counselling and Mental Health Clinic. Meanwhile, for some cultures, government guidelines have meant that the observance of religious traditions, such as washing the body or having an open coffin, has not been possible.”

Dealing with all of this on top of grief is deeply distressing. “The normal channels of support on offer, such as community and opportunities to reminisce have all been curtailed to some degree,” says clinical psychologist Lorraine Sherr. There can be feelings of guilt to negotiate, too, as people regret not being able to commemorate their loved ones in the ways they would have liked. Furthermore, due to the rate at which coronavirus deaths have skyrocketed in the last year, some people might be dealing with multiple losses at once. “This degree of mass grief triggered by the pandemic means that people might not have the dedicated time to cope with each loss,” Sherr says.

Add this to every other major life disruption caused by the pandemic (economic downturn, travel restrictions, education interruptions), and grief becomes all the more unbearable. “People come to bereavement situations with their life strengths to help them,” notes Sherr. “But the pandemic has meant that we’re all slightly weakened, which makes new assaults far more challenging.”

People come to bereavement situations with their life strengths to help them. But the pandemic has meant that we’re all slightly weakened, which makes new assaults far more challenging

Lorraine Sherr

With all this in mind, it’s no wonder psychologists are concerned that those who have been bereaved during the pandemic are likely to experience mental health difficulties in the future, with one study noting how the stress and social disruption caused by the pandemic has “heightened depression and anxiety globally, and is adversely affecting many individuals with pre-existing psychiatric disorders and substance use disorders”. The study adds that a central concern is with the development of “normal grief and distress into prolonged grief and major depressive disorder”, which is characterised by intense feelings of longing, and a long-term preoccupation with the deceased that can lead to emotional disruption, isolation, and, in some cases, increased suicide risk.

“People don’t really ‘get over’ grief, but in most cases they learn to adjust and accommodate it into their everyday life,” says Sherr. “Some people may, however, get very stuck, and feel unable to move forward; those people need special care and attention.”

Ultimately, pandemic or not, grief will always be a very personal experience. Sherr notes that while there are some theories that show common patterns and reactions, they won’t necessarily manifest in the same order or apply to everyone. Take the oft-cited “five stages of grief” aka the Kübler-Ross model introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. For years, the stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) have been widely misinterpreted as feelings experienced by bereaved people. They’re not. Kübler-Ross’s model was, in fact, based on interviews with individuals with life-threatening illnesses. This is just one of the reasons why it can be damaging to look to prescriptive methods and strategies when it comes to finding ways to deal with your grief, say bereavement specialists.

“Don’t be pressured by others into grieving their way,” says Dr Wilson, who suggests finding small ways to distract yourself every day so as to avoid your grief becoming all-consuming, as it might well do given that many of us have had more time on our hands in the last year.

Don’t be pressured by others into grieving their way

Dr John Wilson

This is something the Queen and other members of the royal family have done in the last week, with Her Majesty returning to royal duties just four days after Prince Philip’s death having attended a retirement ceremony at Windsor Castle for Lord Chamberlain Earl Peel, who had previously been the royal household’s most senior official. The Princess Royal, the Queen and Prince Philip’s only daughter, has also resumed official duties, having met with two prestigious yacht clubs on the Isle of Wight on Wednesday as part of her role as president of the Royal Yachting Association.

That said, as helpful as it can be to stay distracted, it’s also important to carve out dedicated time to indulge your grief, says Dr Wilson, “because bottling it up by keeping busy does you no good at all.” Some people might find it helpful to exercise or start journaling, others could find comfort in looking at old photographs and videos. “Find what works for you,” he adds, noting how there are many Covid grief support groups on social media that can allow bereaved people to connect with one another. Meanwhile, the Good Grief Trust has an extensive list of charities and organisations that can offer support.

The most important thing is not to pressure on yourself, says Sherr. “Allow yourself time and space. And don’t feel like you can’t commemorate the life of the person you’ve lost in light of all the restrictions.” There are many things you can do to safely honour them, like planting a tree in their memory, or creating some sort of memorial in your home. “All these add to the celebrations of the life lost, which can help aid your mourning,” adds Sherr. “Life is precious and sometimes grief helps remind us of this.”

As tragic as the past year has been for those who have lost loved ones, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In England, social distancing restrictions are currently set to life on 21 June, which would mean that, for the first time in 15 months, bereaved friends and family members will be able to hold one another at last. And while funerals might have not occurred in the ways they would have hoped, once the rules are lifted, there’s nothing to stop people gathering to celebrate those they’ve lost once again. Regardless of whether it’s a royal parade or a knees-up in a local pub, there will come a time when we’re able to commemorate the lives we’ve lost in the last year. And we’ll do it however we like.

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