As we emerge from lockdown, how can we best support friends who are grieving for loved ones who have died during the coronavirus pandemic?
Helping people cope with bereavement and grief in the wake of the pandemic
Dr Lynn Bassett, a retired healthcare chaplain, looks at some of the challenges to be faced in dealing with grief and bereavement as we slowly begin to emerge from lockdown following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
As lockdown begins to lift
As schools and shops reopen there is some sense that we can begin to get back to normal. However, for many of us things have changed; it is not so much a case of going back to the old normal way of life as finding our way out into a new normal.
This is particularly true for the tens of thousands of people, in this country alone, who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. Whether their friends or relatives have died from COVID-19 or from some other cause, the sadness and suffering of bereavement may have been magnified by the suddenness of the death and by the fact that it has not been possible to say goodbye in the ways that we would normally expect: hospitals and care homes have been forced to close their doors to visitors; funerals have been restricted to a minimum number of mourners; places of worship are closed.
Add to this the isolation and other difficulties of lockdown and the healing process of normal grieving has, perhaps, been put ‘on hold’; just too much to deal with at this time. A loss which is totally personal seems to have been caught up in the great tide of loss and grief which is sweeping our country, taking away its unique individuality, making it feel like just another statistic.
Each is individual, a person with a story, family, friends, connections and memories
We have been reminded tirelessly, by health professionals, that no death is a mere statistic. Each is individual, a person with a story, family, friends, connections and memories. Indeed, this is the source of the pain that we know as grief or bereavement.
Feelings of loss are often closely interwound with experience of love; the more we have loved, the greater the sense of loss. We need time and space to acknowledge the reality of our loss, to endure the avalanche of symptoms of grief which can be physical (such as stomach cramps and insomnia), psychological (such as intense sadness, tiredness and depression) and spiritual (such as loss of personal meaning, purpose and sense of how I fit into the world).
These symptoms descend in no predictable time frame or order, often when and how you least expect them, so that some people have said, ‘it feels like you’re going mad’. The reassurance is that you are not losing your mind, these are normal manifestations of grief.
Grief has been frozen, put on ice
Grief encountered during the coronavirus pandemic can be even more complicated because it has somehow been ‘frozen’, put on ice.
As we emerge from lockdown and the ice begins to melt, like numbed hands returning indoors on a winter’s day, the pain of grief may begin to intensify. It will set its own agenda.
What can we do to offer comfort, warmth and hospitality?
Coming in from the cold of a bleak winter’s day is perhaps an analogy for the place that family members, neighbours and work colleagues, who have lost someone dear to them in the last 3 months, will find themselves.
The setting seems familiar and yet, bewilderingly, everything has changed. What can we do to offer them comfort, warmth and hospitality?
It is time to step up and be there for those we know who are suffering from loss at this time
Bereaved people sometimes notice how people cross the street rather than face that awkward moment of talking to them. “I just don’t know what to say” is generally the reason given. As we emerge from this pandemic, with so many bereaved, and counselling services already stretched, it is time for us to step up and be there for the people we know who are suffering from loss at this time.
Bereaved people tell us that it is not so important for you find exactly the right words, rather that you acknowledge their loss in a genuine way. They may not want you to say much at all, simply your presence, your willingness to be with them, if only for a minute or two, to share something of their pain.
Rather than talking, they might prefer you to listen, to hear the story that they need to retell, over and over, in order to heal. Allow them to talk about their loved one and try to mention him or her by name yourself, share your own personal remembrance of that person where it is affirming and helpful. This is what keeps their memory alive. Someone said, “Coming to terms with loss is not about leaving loved ones behind, it is bringing their memory with you into the life that you continue to lead.”
Offers of practical help are a good way to show a grieving friend that they are not forgotten
Keep in touch, do not wait for a person who is grieving to call you. A brief phone call to see how they are may be appreciated but give them the opportunity to tell you if they would prefer you not to call again.
Similarly, offers of practical help are a good way to show a person who feels lost in grief that they are not forgotten. Small acts of kindness, like a card through the door, a home-made cake, companionship on a walk or promise of prayers, often mean more that you can imagine.
Often just being there is enough
Try not to offer advice, to attempt to ‘fix’ their problems or offer platitudes to help them feel better; though it is tempting. Do not be too quick to make efforts to cheer them up when tears flow. Rather, follow their lead in the conversation and allow them to tell you how things really are for them.
The situation may be different from one meeting to another because of the intense waves of emotion such as anger, guilt and sadness that accompany grief. Sometimes it may seem like they are going backwards or round in circles; this is normal, the grieving process is not linear.
Gently reassure them that they are not going mad but, if you do sense serious problems, encourage them to seek professional help. Being with another person, listening in an open and non-judgmental way can help them to work through some of these feelings for themselves. Where you can, allow silent pauses; these give the other person time to think. Often just being there is enough.
Commit to being there for the long haul
Bereavement is normal and grief takes time. Grief from this pandemic may take much longer to begin to heal than we think. Try not to expect your family or friends to be over it and back to normal after a few months. Accept that these losses have changed their lives for ever and it is going to take time to adjust. Commit to being there for them for the long haul. Do whatever you can, but don’t take on more than you can or you will not be able stay the course.
Take care of yourself, because helping to carry the burden of grief for another person is uncomfortable, heavy and tiring – there is no other way. Take time to relax, to breathe, to exercise, to do something each day that gives you joy. This is not self-indulgence, it is the sensible the way to be kind to yourself so that you can continue to be with grieving friends in a compassionate and meaningful way.
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You can also read more about coping with bereavement and grief on our website.