We can be somewhat lacking when it comes to talking about loss and grief in modern life. Our positive psychology culture means there can be a pressure to portray a stiff upper lip, rather than admit to being in pain. Various religions do have extended periods of mourning, yet on the whole modern society expects us to put on a brave face and just get on with it.
All grief is raw, often in proportion to the depth of love felt. People don’t ‘get over’ grief, at best they very gradually learn to somehow live with the loss and build a meaningful life around it.
What follows is not to minimise anyone’s experience of loss, but merely to clarify the added complexity that may be being experienced in the current climate for those who are grieving.
Many tens of thousands of people have died during this period, either directly or indirectly due to the virus, as well as in different more ‘normal’ or unrelated tragic circumstances. Yet in many cases, if these deaths happened in hospitals or care homes, loved ones were unable to be there to comfort their relatives in their dying weeks, days or even hours.
For dying alone to be normalised, as if it were a small matter, is unacceptable and dehumanising. In the panic of the early days of the crisis this was clearly a temporary, terrible compromise. Yet we need to acknowledge the impact this may have had on those who we know are grieving (as well as those health and care workers who stepped in again and again so incredibly bravely and selflessly to replace family).
A sense of unreality
Pre the Covid pandemic, there have always been circumstances where people were unable to be with loved ones as they passed away - in the case of war, tragic accidents, sudden death, terrorist attacks and fires. During lockdown, this situation was experienced over and over again no matter the cause of death. Being with a loved one as they are dying, as harrowing as this may be, provides a chance to psychologically adapt at some level to the impending loss. Not being able to be with a person when they pass away can lead to a sense of unreality, and grief can remain suspended in disbelief.
To add to this, in most cases the usual mourning rituals were cut back to a minimum, with little or no opportunity to be comforted by family and friends in a normal way. How people cope with grief has been shown to be dependent on the support systems they have around them, and again these have sometimes been denied or at least curtailed. (Although some people have said that this very private personal mourning has been comforting).
When a person is grieving, they often describe feeling unmoored, as if they are being tossed around on stormy seas. But they may find some small comfort in the normal rituals of everyday life, and have micro moments of calm before the next wave inevitably comes crashing over.
The complication now is that personal grief sits upon a layer of the broader uncertainty that the Covid crisis has visited on society as a whole. The normality of everyday life is no longer there as a soothing backdrop. The fear and confusion experienced in the face of loss is being reflected back from outside, adding to the sense of discombobulation. Whether you experienced loss during Covid, or you came into the pandemic carrying grief, the combination of loss and lockdown, with all its associated isolation and endings, created a potent cocktail of emotions.
Many people will be familiar with the Kubler Ross Five stages of grief model - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These were never intended to be linear or prescriptive, but they can provide some reassurance for mourners that they are not going mad as they lurch from one emotion to the other and back again. Now, even as people mourn individual losses, they are at the same time being buffeted back and forth through these stages in relation to life in general.
In short, this is grief with the volume turned up.
It’s not useful to tell someone how to mourn. It’s vital to find one’s own way through. But it’s important to acknowledge that the broader situation we find ourselves in during this pandemic, means that any grief is likely to be more complicated.
Do talk about what you are experiencing, whether that be with family, friends, a bereavement group or a grief counsellor. Try to look after yourself no matter how low your motivation is, keeping a degree of structure to your day. Some exercise will help, preferably outdoors. Give in to exhaustion and rest when you can. Writing your feelings down is therapeutic and you may be able to share this later with others in order to help them make sense of their own experience. None of these things will take away the pain, but they may help in making some sense of the myriad of emotions a mourner will be facing.
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How do you cope with the death of a loved one? How can you deal with the overwhelming feelings of loss and grief? BACP member Sara Mathews explains how counselling can help.
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Views expressed in this article are the views of the writer and not necessarily the views of BACP. Publication does not imply endorsement of the writer’s views. Reasonable care has been taken to avoid errors but no liability will be accepted for any errors that may occur.