Old Wounds: Ongoing Grief in the time of Covid-19

Those of us working in bereavement support are, sadly, like healthcare workers and funeral directors among others, very busy at the moment. At the point of writing, in 2020 to date the UK death toll is 20% higher than the average of previous years.

There are a lot more bereaved people, more even than we had expected. Many of those people are particularly shocked, some traumatised, living with the fallout of a situation they could not have imagined just a few months ago; coming to terms with the sudden death of a loved one but also the extraordinary circumstance, in many cases, of not being able to say the goodbye they would have wanted, due to necessary safety restrictions.

We were expecting these calls, to a degree, and are offering the best comfort and support we can.

What we had perhaps only partly anticipated was the number of people who were bereaved pre-pandemic, and even many years ago, for whom the current circumstances are bringing their grief very much to the surface again or making it harder to bear. Clients come to us surprised by their feelings and sometimes even almost apologetic: “I didn’t lose them to coronavirus but..” “My loss was years ago but…”

There might be many reasons bereaved people are struggling right now:

Lockdown: there’s no doubt the enforced period of isolation has been difficult to bear for many. Some bereaved people we talk to, especially those who live alone, had just established new routines and coping mechanisms for themselves as part of living with their loss. Many of these involved going out, socialising, taking part in activities, all of which are to a greater or lesser degree unavailable now. It feels as though the safety net has been pulled and they’re in danger of tumbling back to that lonely place of their early grief.

Reminders of dying and death: there’s little escape from the reality of death when death rates are reported daily on the TV. We’ve seen reports of traumatic final days on ventilators; news stories have been accompanied by images of coffins, lone funeral cars, even mass graves. Part of a healthy grieving process is to spend time in the ‘restoration’ zone, where you give yourself space to not think about your loss, to distract yourself, to keep busy and even to laugh. That’s hard in the face of a global pandemic.

Grief ‘hierarchy’: We are hearing quite a lot of “at least” from the less-recently bereaved. At least it wasn’t Covid. At least I was with them at the end. At least we had a proper funeral. The trouble with these kind of sentiments is they imply that someone else’s loss is more important than yours. It’s not; the worst loss is yours. Hot on its heels is “I know plenty are worse off than me”.

Almost always in life, this is true. Someone, somewhere will be having a “worse” day (though who gets to define that, I wonder?) It doesn’t make your pain any less significant.

So if any of this sounds familiar, for you or for someone you know, what can you do about it?

First of all, acknowledge the feelings and accept that they are valid. Give yourself permission to feel them. Wallow a bit if you need to, cry, stamp your feet, shout at the walls. You went through a painful time and right now you’re feeling it as hard as ever. It’s understandable.

Remind yourself, though, that the feelings will, if not pass exactly, change. When we’re in the throes of deep grief it can feel like a thick fog we’ll never find our way out of. But perhaps you’ve had some glimmers of light in whatever time has passed since you lost your loved one. Perhaps tomorrow will be better, again. Perhaps post-pandemic the feelings will change, again. Hold on to that and the knowledge that nothing, good or bad, stays the same.

Switch off the news (and social media) and take a breather. Usual measures apply for self-care: rest, eat well, exercise (if you can). Fresh air.

We always say there’s no time limit to grief; and there’s no telling what might trigger it, but a scenario where your daily activities are severely curtailed and there is constant mention of illness and death seems an almost perfect storm. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been bereaved, or how well you’ve been managing until now.

Try to get some of those old coping measures back, in whatever form you can. A lot of groups, classes and support services have moved online. Keep your social network going even if it’s just through regular phone calls or writing emails or letters. Make that contact.

There might be someone out there who’s feeling a lot like you, and you’ll both be glad you did.

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