Grief in the time of coronavirus
The Covid-19 pandemic lockdown and other restrictions are impacting on nearly every aspect of our lives, forcing us to give things up and change our behaviours. And one of the many areas we need to change is how we grieve and mourn.
Social isolation is making grieving and mourning more difficult: when we hear a friend is ill, we cannot visit them or their families, to hug them and help them and tell them we love them. Funerals are restricted to five mourners and we are cut off from our usual ways of coping with grief and helping each other: coming together and sharing the pain and loss.
Services are live-streamed and friends, family and loved-ones watch from the distance of self-isolation. FaceTime and Zoom link you instantly to relatives and friends to share how you feel. But it can still leave you feeling distant, cut-off, not really part of what is happening.
We are in uncharted waters: such a significant increase in the number of people dying at a time of massive restrictions on travel and enforced social isolation, has not happened within living memory. There are no maps, no guidelines for how to grieve. We must learn again how to cope with grief in this new sea, as we must learn again how to live.
Distancing means the full impact of bereavement might not be felt until the pandemic is over and life has returned to normality. That could be when it really hits us.
Funerals can be bruising emotionally but also moving and important for the grieving process, helping us fully acknowledge the person has gone, allowing us to express feelings in the company of others who knew and loved the person we have lost. To cry together, to be close to and to hug each other, drawing strength in the midst of our collective pain.
To see the person buried or cremated or perhaps even to see the body, helps us accept the death: people who never saw the person ill and could not attend the funeral, often report that they do not fully accept the loss, until much later when they might attend an event the deceased would have been at. A sudden death can be even harder to accept.
When we cannot come together to support each other and draw strength, grief could be that much harder.
But what is grief? What is this bitter medicine we must all drink at some point in our lives?
In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described the Five Stages of Grief as:
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – when we hear of an impending death, we protect ourselves from painful reality by pretending it’s not true, that it is not really happening, that there is a mistake. Denial turns to anger, rage, at God, the universe, family, health staff - anyone we can find who could carry the blame. Anger turns to bargaining: “if she recovers, I promise I’ll never drink again…” and after bargaining comes depression, the sinking into the deep and overwhelming sadness of loss. The full reality of the loss sets in and we can finally reach acceptance, the coming to terms with the loss and moving on.
Grief is letting someone go, separating from them, accepting they are no longer a part of your life. It is acknowledgement of the role they played in your life and that that role is over. Grief is pain and powerlessness. It hurts, it kicks you in the stomach, punches you in the face. Your body recoils and the impact works its way through the tissues of your body.
Grief can hurt for weeks and months, but it will pass: sometimes, grief can get stuck and linger around, becoming “complex”, where there were particularly difficult circumstances around the loss or issues in your relationship with the person who has died.
There may have been a conflict. You may have been abused, abandoned, maltreated or bullied by a close relative: this can be a terribly difficult relationship to manage as an adult and even if you haven’t had contact with them for years, the news that they are dying can bring up many conflicting feelings.
The difficulties can complicate the process of grieving: if the conflict wasn’t resolved before the person died, you can be left with a sense of 'unfinished business'; the weight of everything you wanted to say to them, to have them hear and be accountable for. To have them acknowledge the hurt they caused.
When someone you know is dying and you have the chance - visiting and talking to them to say the things which need to be said, to ask the questions you need to ask and listen to how they feel about dying - can help you both. It can be healing and calming to resolve differences and conflicts, both for you and the person who is dying. Under the lockdown, this is not possible for many people and we have to rely on technology to communicate, but a phone call or Skype could still help.
If you have a problematic relationship, this last communication can require thought and it can be a good idea to talk to a therapist – to have a neutral person to work through what happened between you to cause the rift. Thinking about what to say can be scary, bringing to light long-buried memories. Memories you had to bury to protect yourself and which have been climbing their way back into consciousness in response perhaps to the news that the relative who hurt you is dying. You can become traumatised again, reliving and re-experiencing the hurt and the pain.
Counselling therapy can help you think through whether you want to contact the person and what you want to say to them: it can be important to create and retain a sense of control over any contact and communication: writing a letter, and deciding later whether to send it and if you do, whether to accept a reply can be a way of retaining control and protecting yourself. You might also need to think about the impact communicating with the person could have if they are very unwell: these are difficult decisions to make and as every situation is unique, there is no set way to do this. Thinking it through carefully with a neutral person, trained to listen and help with delicate situations can be a great relief. A therapist can also help you work through any trauma or painful memories which may have resurfaced.
Losing someone hurts – there is no way around this. Even if the person hurt you at times in life – the father who abandoned you when you were younger, the relative who abused you, the mother who thought alcohol was more important than you: it can still hurt when they die. You find yourself mourning the actual person but also the parent you didn’t have, but that you wanted and should have had - deserved to have.
For all our technological and scientific advances, no-one has ever found an easy cure for grief. It is an intense emotional, psychological and physical experience. You can feel actual, physical pain as you work through letting someone go. And you need to let the pain work its way through you, taking its time and following its path.
We are in uncharted waters: thousands of people around the country are discovering what grief feels like in the coronavirus pandemic and many thousands more will be finding out over the coming weeks and months. We will sadly learn how to cope through experience.
What we know so far is that it helps to keep talking – talk to family, friends, neighbours; the people who matter in your life – start now, don’t wait for someone to get ill: tell them what they mean to you, what you have valued about them, how they have shaped your life. Your favourite memories of them the times they have made you laugh, hugged you when you were hurt, inspired you, helped you. Where you can, try to resolve conflicts, reconcile yourself with people you may have fallen out with. If you love someone; tell them.
And if someone is ill or dying, try your best to talk to them still, to get a message to them, speak on the phone, reach out to them. If someone dies, still try to be part of the funeral and the mourning, even if this is online or remotely in some way. Try to share your grief and help and support each other and celebrate the life of the person who has died – how and who they were.
Let the grief work its way through you and if you need to, let a therapist guide you through the pain.
And remember that grief will pass, as will the pandemic. You will be safe and happy again.