Many people feel the pandemic has made grieving for the dead more difficult, as if grief itself has been “suspended”.
Restrictions around funerals or cremations, combined with social distancing, are making grieving more difficult, according to the poll, commissioned by the Centre for the Art of Dying Well at St Mary's University, Twickenham.
The bereaved are turning to family and friends for help and support, the survey found. Carried out by Savanta ComRes ahead of this weekend's Remembrance Sunday, the poll found that, of those who have themselves or had a loved one experience the death of someone close since the start of the pandemic, 55 per cent feel that the pandemic have made the grieving process especially difficult.
Many have been unable to say goodbye to loved ones with the funeral rituals they may have wanted. “The outcome can lead to a very complicated grief; of a kind which is far more difficult to cope with, or recover from,” the centre says. “Deaths during the pandemic have not been as envisaged, often with the quick onset of illness, followed by a short hospitalisation, leading to bereavement accompanied by a high degree of shock, and attendant disbelief.”
In the latest Art of Dying Well podcast, Julia Samuel, an eminent psychotherapist who has worked with the bereaved for over 30 years says: “All the normal feelings are intensified with a sudden death. We talk about 'grief with the volume turned up'. The rituals that would normally happen, such as having a memorial where people that love the person that died gathered together, have either been stopped or very depleted. Most of the people I talk to feel that their grief has been suspended.
“The first task of mourning is to face the reality of the loss, and if you haven't sat beside the person, haven't held their hand or had the opportunity to say that you love them, to say goodbye – but instead you've seen it on a nurse's iPad – it's totally surreal.”
The poll found that the most commonly felt impact was being unable to attend the funeral or cremation – 21 per cent – closely followed by social isolation from friends and family following the death, adhering to social distancing rules at the funeral or cremation and visiting restrictions in hospitals or care homes – all 18 per cent.
The findings underline the central role of the funeral ritual in the grieving process, and how the ways in which people normally seek support are no longer available.
Julia Samuel says: “I think social distancing are the chilliest two words in our lexicon right now because when we look at bereavement… it's the love and connection to others and the support that we get at the time, and after the loss, that predicts our outcomes.”
Paul Allcock, Director at Allcock Family Funeral Services said: “Since the initial lockdown I have witnessed many changes in the way families grieve and the adjustments that have had to be made. Restrictions have understandably added great stress to families who were left unable to fulfil the wishes of the deceased person. It also left the closest relatives to grieve at the funeral without support. Not being able to get a hug or even a handshake from those offering support is such a shame.
“In some cases, particularly if the immediate family is small, there have been positive experiences by only having the family attend the funeral. I have seen individuals who would normally not feel able to speak in public, stand and present wonderful tributes. This has often resulted in the most personal and appropriate memories being shared in a much more relaxed environment than would normally be the case. This doesn’t mean they are handling their grief any better but being able to say what needs to be said, and feeling that you couldn’t have done more can prove to be a great healing experience.”
The poll further revealed that of those who have themselves or had a loved one experience the death of someone close since the start of the pandemic, friends and family have been the most common source of help and support, with a quarter citing friends and family for this purpose. Around 1 in 10 used took time off from work, turned to their their faith and faith community, did things that brought back good memories, used a helpline, sought counselling and looked up resources online.
However, one third said they hadn’t sought help or support at all, and this was greatest among those aged over 65.
Dr Lynn Bassett, of the Art of Dying Well, who has worked with many bereaved people, said: “Perhaps this data points to the importance of social contact, especially when times are hardest. Human beings are social by nature and it is through social contact with others that most of us thrive.
“It has become harder to find natural opportunities to ask others how they are. Now, more than ever, every one of us needs to find ways to reach out to others, especially those who are grieving, in any way we can. Encouraging someone who is struggling with their grief to seek out some support either online or via the telephone may be just the impetus that they need.
“November is traditionally the month when we remember the dead. Let’s make a special effort to remember those who are living with grief too; and in our remembering let us find ways to offer something of the social contact that has been taken away by the restrictions of the pandemic.”
National Grief Awareness Week which takes place from 2-8 December and many churches will be holding online remembrance services during November.
The Centre for the Art of Dying Well at St Mary’s University - public engagement, policy and research around death, dying and bereavement.
Mind – for better mental health