Facing grief & bereavement in the midst of the coronavirus
By Patricia McCrossan, Social Work Manager, North London Hospice
We find ourselves facing unusual and challenging times and the word ‘unprecedented’ has become part of our daily discussions. I have been a hospice social work manager for almost 20 years and along with everyone else wonder, what has happened to the world and what impact is this having on death, dying and bereavement?
What is a ‘good death’ is a question that has always been debated. Many of the features that might achieve this are challenged in the current crisis:
- Spending time with family and friends
- Exercising choice, including preferred place of care and death
- Being prepared – planning funeral, saying ‘goodbye’, memory box, letters, making a will, get ‘house in order’
- Dying with family/friends present
We suddenly find people are dying quickly, unexpectedly and access to family and friends is severely restricted or unable to happen. North London Hospice has been affected by this too, and difficult decisions have needed to be taken about visiting, which contradicts some of our usual values. It has been necessary, but not easy to explain to families or support the inevitable impact and outcomes.
Bereavement can be lonely, painful and not what people anticipate, but I have been inspired by the resilience that people develop to enable them to cope and adapt, but again many coping mechanisms are now challenged:
- ‘I was with ……… when they died and it was calm and peaceful.’
- ‘the funeral was just what he wanted, it was wonderful that so many people attended, I had no idea he had touched so many lives’.
- ‘family and friends came from all over the world’
- ‘her funeral was a celebration of her life and very uplifting’
- ‘I went to stay with family after the funeral, it was lovely being around my grandchildren’
- ‘I didn’t like being in the house alone, so made sure I met with others every day’.
Funerals, stone settings and anniversaries have a psychological and social value in helping people cope.
Confront reality Validate the deceased
Allow ‘doing’ Sense of connection
Sharing Express support – hug
Bereavement In The New World
Cultural, religious and spiritual belief systems can provide a framework of helpful rites and rituals to construct a shared meaning with others who attend and support the bereaved. Current restrictions limit the number of people who can attend events, physical contact with each other, tributes and sharing a meal and memories afterwards.
Alternatives are not without their challenges and can depend on computer literacy and good internet connections, and an ‘elbow bump’ can never replace a hug.
Though maybe not our first choice many people are considering new ways for shared experience and acknowledging, validating and celebrating a life:
- Streaming the funeral live using social media platforms – e.g. Zoom, Skype, Watsapp, Facetime
- Recording the funeral
- Two part ritual – burial/cremation then memorial event in the future
- Website memorials – people can share memories, photographs
- Creating a memorial programme, including tributes, a biography and photographs
Each experience of grief and bereavement is unique to the person experiencing it but there are some common ways which can help bring comfort and support, even in this unusual more isolated world we find ourselves living in right now:
Look after yourself
- Try to maintain some routine – getting up, washed, dressed and mealtimes at your usual times
- Eat well and stay hydrated – basic but important to your wellbeing
- Try to get some sunshine each day, even if just going into the garden
- Keep connected with others via phone, social media etc.
- Consider joining an online chat/forum – find the confidence to give it a try, remember everyone involved has had similar experiences
- Engage in memory making activities – putting together an album of photographs, make a memory box
- Be honest – if someone asks how you are, tell them the truth, be yourself
- Say ‘yes’ to any help offered
- Grief takes time and energy but if you are concerned about how you are seek additional information, advice, support e.g. GP
- Have media breaks – the news can heighten anxiety
- Give yourself permission to take a break from the emotional impact of grieving too, without feeling guilty about doing so
During times of an international crisis there can be a feeling that some deaths are more tragic than others. The media can exacerbate this with a strong, consistent narrative about older people and underlying health issues etc. Many people are preoccupied with the impact the crisis is having on their own life, and may offer less practical or emotional support than usual, but your bereavement is important and you deserve to be heard.
North London Hospice is still here to listen to you
The North London Hospice will be holding community memorial events in the future, to commemorate those who have died – Light up a Life (November 2020) and our Ceremony of Remembrance events will resume once current restrictions are lifted.
Talking to someone outside your usual support network can also be helpful at this time. If we have cared for a relative or friend, please call our bereavement service on 020 8343 6819/6807 and we will arrange for a trained member of staff or volunteer to call you. We are currently only able to offer ongoing support to those bereaved when the person who died was known to a hospice service, but we can provide information about local support agencies for the wider community.
Death Ends A Life, Not A Relationship