Psychotherapist Discusses How To Cope With COVID Loss As The UK Moves Forward
Grief, by its very nature, is never an easy thing to contend with, and may well take a lifetime to process.
Over the course of the pandemic, conversations about death and dying have risen to the surface on a collective level, uniting us in our private devastations.
It quickly became normal to switch on the news and see the number of the dead written out in big block letters, to hear stories of seemingly healthy young people struggling for breath on their deathbeds.
There are few of us who haven’t been touched by grief over the course of the pandemic. Thousands upon thousands have lost loved ones to the virus, while others have grieved those whose treatments or diagnoses were fatally delayed.
With restrictions in place, far too many of us have been unable to grieve in the way we usually would, the rituals and traditions surrounding death having been pared back in ways many of us couldn’t have imagined.
Previously, families would have huddled around the hospital bed during those precious final hours, holding their loved ones’ hands and stroking their hair.
Many of those who lost people during the most restricted times will know the pain of not having been there at the end, of saying goodbye via shaky FaceTime calls, and enduring the days and weeks to come without well-meaning visits and cups of tea from relatives.
All across the world, funerals have long provided a chance to celebrate a person’s life, whether it be long or short, to remember the happy times with others who knew them best.
The rise of COVID saw funerals pared back, stripped of the late-night toasts and tight hugs that have traditionally provided comfort amid sorrow.
I know I’m far from the only one to have stood by the graveside of someone I loved dearly, weeping six feet apart from relatives and unable to so much as place a reassuring arm around a fellow mourner.
The UK has suffered 128,000 UK deaths to date, in what has been described as a ‘grief pandemic’. Given that an estimated nine people are affected by the death of one person, this would mean an approximate 1,152,000 people will currently be dealing with grief from coronavirus alone.
With such a deep well of collective grief rising and rising beneath the stats and figures, moving on from the pandemic won’t be quite as simply as easing of the restrictions. For many, the scars of bereavement will linger long after the world has resumed some sort of ‘normality’.
UNILAD spoke with Julia Samuel MBE, a leading psychotherapist who has specialised in grief counselling for more than 30 years, and who has recently launched the new grief support app, Grief Works.
Samuel told UNILAD how the grieving process has been ‘severely impacted by the coronavirus’ for a number of reasons, with the most difficult reason being ‘the sudden nature of the infection, and consequent death where there often was not an opportunity to be present and say goodbye’.
The important rituals of grieving like the funeral were diminished with small numbers, or sometimes, on Zoom.
The biggest influence on people who are bereaved is the love and connection of others, and of course that has been cut through the isolation rules. It is unprecedented – the closest loss on this scale is the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918 which infected 500 million people and which killed an estimated 50 million.
Marie Curie recently revealed that an approximate 50% of people across the UK are currently unable to receive the bereavement support they need, with the NHS already stretched. It’s feared that this widespread pain will only intensify in the months to come.
According to Samuel, mental health was already underfunded prior to the pandemic, and – despite the government adding this to their budget – she doesn’t believe this ‘could possibly meet the need that is required’.
Samuel is a commissioner on the government-established Bereavement Commission, established ‘to look at what is needed’ going forward, and hopes that ‘[it] will deliver’.
With this in mind, it’s important on an individual level to look out for those who might be struggling with bereavement at this time, to make sure we’re there for friends and family members as the months and years continue to turn.
Considering how the process of coming out of lockdown will affect those still grieving, Samuel explained that they may feel as though ‘their grief was suspended until the restrictions are lifted’, which could lead to ‘more complex grief which has poorer psychological consequences’ for some.
Samuel has advised those currently processing their grief to ‘ask and get support from people who love you’, emphasising ‘it is their love and connection to you will help you bear the pain of your loss’.
Hugs help. Allow yourself to cry; it is physiologically healing. Intentionally do things that comfort you, maybe buying flowers, smelly bath salts or listening/watching a tv programme.
It helps give you a break from the pain. Take exercise, ideally outside, grief is embodied, and it feels like fear, moving your body around, it can be a walk, a cycle a run, whatever you can manage, shifts the level of fear and helps you feel calmer and that helps you manage your grief.
Of course, many of us have also found ourselves taking on the grief of others, becoming a trusted ear on the end of the phone. Often we will feel helpless to know what we can do or say to alleviate such overwhelming emotions.
Many people grieving experience a sudden and traumatic death. Traumatic grief is like normal grief but more intense, we say it is like grief but with the volume turned up – so it is much more painful and is more likely to need psychological support.
This support is not always available. For friends and family, the best thing they can do to support those grieving is to stay connected, acknowledge their loss, don’t try and fix it and be there for the long haul.
Grief takes longer than anyone wants or chooses and is more likely to last longer post pandemic. Don’t just send texts, show up, take them for a walk, sit and listen.
Now, more than ever, we need to be there for one another, to make that extra bit of effort and let our grieving loved ones know that we are right by their side.
You can find out more about Grief Works here.
If you have experienced a bereavement and would like to speak with someone in confidence contact Cruse Bereavement Care via their national helpline on 0808 808 1677.
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