Grief and loss in a pandemic

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Suzanne writes this brilliant piece about her experience of multiple bereavements during the pandemic and how her grief was impacted. If you’d like to join a supportive group of people all who have experienced loss, check out our meet ups here.

I lost my son, mum and dad within 7 months in late 2020 and early 2021. I have only known grief and loss in a pandemic. In my opinion, unless you have been in this position it is hard to comprehend the added complexity that the pandemic has brought.

My son’s loss to suicide was at the start of September 2020. England was returning to lockdown as Covid cases were rising and new restrictions were being implemented. The immediate impact of navigating the challenges in arranging a funeral and wake were hugely stressful. What I didn’t consider at the time were the longer term implications of loss in a pandemic situation too.

Uncertainty

At a time of shock, anxiety and pure bewilderment we had to navigate a child’s funeral against the backdrop of a pandemic. We anxiously watched government press conferences, eager to know how they would impact the funeral, praying the changes wouldn’t affect us. Who would have contemplated that Boris Johnson’s daily news conference would have such relevance after my child’s death?

Would funeral numbers drop from 30? Could we have a wake and where? Could family travel from abroad? The fear of contracting Covid was also very real. The worry that you might miss your own child’s funeral was sickening.

Difficult choices

Funeral choices. So 30 people at a funeral was confirmed. How do you choose? The initial selections were straightforward but we have a large family. Who needed lifts? Who needed the support of others to attend? Brutal decisions. Few partners. No future boasts of 400 people and a funeral bursting at the seams for us.

Zoom at a funeral? When first suggested it filled me with horror. I was used to this platform being used at work or for a family lockdown quiz. It felt alien to consider it for my child’s last journey. I had watched a funeral on Zoom and felt an intruder to the family’s grief. We did not use it for Samuel but it did feel appropriate for my mum’s funeral. We had family in Ireland, in the US and my daughter in Amsterdam. My daughter later described the strangeness of watching from her living room, seeing her family on screen and being alone with her grief.

Rituals

We missed many of the rituals that are associated with loss. There were no mass outpourings of grief with people coming to pay their respects. Very few came to the house, just immediate family. I had some awkward doorstep conversations as crossing the threshold was against the rules.

Vulnerable grandparents so in need of support were left to grieve alone, fearful of contracting Covid, in pre-vaccination times.

The funeral rituals were impacted too. No touching or carrying the coffin was allowed for Samuel’s funeral. The funeral director told us she would turn a blind eye when we wanted to place our white roses on his coffin.

No singing, just piped music, taped off seats suggesting a crime scene and hand sanitiser instead of holy water. The stark reality of Covid-safe measures when even sitting alongside your family was frowned upon. Who would have thought formal funeral wear would include face coverings?

Longer term impact

The ritual of attending a funeral, saying goodbye, honouring the loss and respecting the family have not happened. The wider friends and community support was dampened. I had no friends at any of these funerals.

The lack of connectivity is stark. Few people heard my heartfelt eulogy or my children’s tribute to their brother. They subsequently lacked appreciation of the impact of these losses and the opportunity to honour my child or my parents. It’s been very lonely.

We only had one of my son’s friends at his funeral. His teenage peers had no ritual, no saying goodbye, no closure at all. I often think of the impact on them going forward and I worry about their mental health.

On a final note

Any benefits? There have been some benefits to grieving in a pandemic it has to be said. There has been a general feeling of reduced pressure, a country in lockdown has felt different, quieter or surreal even. People weren’t teasing us by going about their lives or having fun.

There has not been the pressure to widely mix so we could contain and protect ourselves. In the shorter term we have been grateful of this. The longer term impact for us and those vulnerable teenage friends might be harder to predict.

Suzanne Howes, founder of Coaching After Loss

Follow on Instagram: @coachingafterloss and Twitter: @CoachingLoss