I offer you my sincere condolences if you have arrived at this article because you are newly bereaved.
It’s never a good time to lose someone you love, but a bereavement during the current coronavirus ‘lockdown’ situation can be acutely painful. Not being able to be at the side of a loved one during their medical care and perhaps not even being there to say our farewells as they take their last breath is bound to make grief more difficult to bear. Travel restrictions might make it impossible to give them a ‘proper send-off’ or the funeral they would have wished for, and you might not even be able to attend at all.
In this post I’ll be looking at the pain of sudden death in these acute and unusual circumstances. None of us know how long this pandemic crisis is going to last nor how soon social distancing restrictions will be lifted. Perhaps this article will be redundant very soon, but in the meantime, I hope it might be a help.
(For anyone visiting this blog for the first time, I am a doubly bereaved mother. My son Pax died aged 3 in 1982 and my daughter Catherine died aged 30 in 2011. Since Catherine’s death I also lost my mother and brother. I have no remaining children. My main focus now is supporting those who are grieving through my Living with Loss project, as well as some work for The Compassionate Friends.)
The turmoil caused by sudden death
Any death can be a shock; sudden death is particularly difficult. As we begin to comprehend what has happened, we might be in turmoil. Our thoughts could be racing; we might find it almost impossible to take on board. If we have not been able to see our loved one at the time of their death, and/or not since they died, then it might feel quite unreal and we might struggle to believe they have really gone. We might find it difficult to sleep.
It is not surprising in these circumstances to find ourselves deeply sad, mournful, lacking concentration, exhausted, despairing, confused or angry — or very likely a combination of all these. Such grief can bring with it an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. If we are a person of faith, we may be severely tested. If we are living alone, particularly if we are self-isolating, we might feel desperately lonely in our grief. We may become gripped with worries about the health of other family members. If we have lost an elderly parent or other family member, we might be concerned for the welfare of their surviving husband or wife, and frustrated that we cannot visit them to support them in person. Phone calls and contact via digital media are not the same as a warm hug.
There is no escaping information about coronavirus at this time; constant updates can keep us in a state of agitation. If our loved one has died as a result of Covid-19, we might feel resentful that they are counted as a ‘statistic’ when they are so much more. They are an individual who breathed, loved, lived.
Coping at this moment
Grief is like a storm. We are tossed around on its waves. Sometimes we feel like our head is above water; other times we are drowning. We are blown and buffeted. We do not control the intensity of our grief nor its duration. Grief is unpredictable. Our experience of grief will be in some ways unique to ourselves. And all of this is not a weakness nor a failure; it is simply evidence that we love someone.
Our immediate need is to take care of ourselves. Warm, sweetened drinks are helpful for shock. If we cannot face a full meal, we could try small snacks. A little fresh air and exercise will do us good, even if this is limited to a garden, balcony or next to an open window. Try listening for the birds in the early mornings, or star watch at night.
In these stormy times, it is important to look for safe harbours. Some might be within ourselves, and some might be with the support of others. Being in company at this time is not easy, and we will need to use our phone or digital means to stay in touch. This is not as good as having them in the same room with us, but can be better than nothing.
Finding an outlet for our thoughts and feelings is essential. There are a number of organisations that have helplines and offer other support. They are still operational during the coronavirus crisis. (See contact details below.)
Writing can be a useful and creative outlet for our conflicting and confusing emotions; a safe way of expressing ourselves. It does not matter whether we share our writings or they remain private.
For those with a religious faith, being deprived of the usual companionship of our congregation can be difficult. Hopefully there is still some pastoral support that we can access through the phone. On the other hand, it is not unusual to find ourselves questioning our beliefs during such a crisis. We need to be patient with ourselves. Our faith can be a comforting safe harbour, but we might not find it right away.
We will need to be creative and adaptable in our grieving. For instance, if it has not been possible for us to attend our loved one’s funeral, and/or if the funeral was not all that we wanted it to be, we could plan a memorial service for when restrictions are lifted. Alternatively, we could organise some type of digital ‘social media’ memorial, where friends and family could be invited to contribute pictures or comments.
Above all, we should be kind to ourselves. This means not only taking physical care, but also allowing ourselves time and space to grieve. We will need to face our grief if we want to survive it. This includes allowing ourselves to cry, if we wish; expressing our emotions loudly, if we wish; or sitting in quietness, if that is what we prefer.
Having patience with ourselves is one of the most important elements of being kind to ourselves. We should not feel obligated to ‘keep busy’ or ‘pull ourselves together’ when our hearts are breaking. It is going to take us awhile to find our feet again.
Dealing with the ‘unknowns’
Almost every death leaves unanswered questions. We might wonder if our loved one’s death was avoidable. Did they receive the right treatment? Were they exposed unnecessarily to those who were already infected, such as in a Care Home? It is not unusual to seek for answers, although we might be frustrated at our inability to do so at this moment. It won’t be surprising if we become angry, which is not an unusual emotion in grief.
On the other hand, the bereaved often blame themselves, even if there was nothing that they could have done. We could feel guilty that we were not at our loved one’s side, or were not able to fulfil their wishes for the type of funeral they would have wanted. All of this is out of our control, but nevertheless, we might dwell on these thoughts. It won’t do us any good but we still might ‘beat ourselves up’ about it. That’s one reason it is useful to speak with other people who understand.
In the midst of all of these unknowns, there are some things we do know. We know who our loved one was. We know their personalities. We know at least some of their likes and dislikes. We probably have some lovely memories of times we spent together, or what they achieved in their lives. If our loved one had health issues, particularly something like dementia, in the period prior to their death, we might want to cast our minds back to earlier memories. Were they musical or did they like listening to music? Did they have a beloved pet? If they were our parent or elderly relative, let’s think back to happy memories of birthdays, holidays and special occasions. Trying to focus on good memories can be a balm in this time of grief.
Getting help and support
Please don’t feel you are alone in what you are going through, no matter what form your grief is taking. There are many people who are eager to support you at this time.
Cruse Bereavement Care has a helpline for the bereaved on 0808 808 1677.
For those who have suffered the death of a child, the Compassionate Friends (TCF) have a helpline you can call: 0345 123 2304. The trained volunteers who answer the phone are all bereaved parents. The line is open daily from 10 am – 4 pm and 7 – 10 pm. It is operational during the lockdown.
In moments of crisis, if your grief feels unbearable or you simply need to unload, speak to Samaritans on 116 123. This is a free helpline, available 24 hours a day.
If you have lost your partner, particularly if you are elderly, you may be faced with practical tasks that you are not used to managing by yourself. If you have close family members, they may not be able to visit as they would wish. But you are not alone. Most parts of the country have local community groups who can help with delivering shopping and medicine. You might be able to find them by searching the name of your town on Facebook or by contacting your local council. Also, Age UK has a useful page of information here.
You’re also welcome to get in touch with me if you would like a chat. If we exchange emails, I can give you a ring back. (I am an individual and not an organisation, so it can take me a while to respond.)
Cruse Bereavement Care has an extremely useful page of general information on bereavement during the coronavirus pandemic. Find it here
TCF has published a leaflet regarding losing a child during the coronavirus pandemic. View and download it here.
If you were unable to attend your loved one’s funeral or you’re looking for other ideas of appropriate ‘remembrance’ activities you can do at home, here is an article on grieving at home.
And finally, a few words from a Christian perspective
(This is adapted from the introduction to my book A Valley Journal.)
“We understand death for the first time when he puts his hand upon one whom we love,” wrote Madame De Staël.
No matter what one’s belief about life after this life, there is still pain in losing someone we love. Not having their presence in this world is a loss on many levels, and it is difficult to learn to live without them. Rather like losing an arm or a leg, although the wound may heal, we are still hobbling through life without a limb.
I lost a second limb on April 13th 2011. (My first limb was my son Pax who died in 1982.)
It was a warm and sunny April morning. Arriving at noon at my adult daughter’s house, standing in its shadow whilst being informed that she was there but “gone,” I fell to the ground and cried and cried. In that haze of agonising, bewildering sorrow, I found myself quoting the words of Psalm 23:
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.”
I had always understood this scripture to be God’s comfort during the time of our own death; but in the days that followed, the words took on a new meaning. I was in the shadow of death – my child’s death – and though it didn’t feel like it at the time, I was not alone. It was only later that I came to recognise His mercies and the ways that He had taken care of me.
Our journey is not taken alone. No matter how lonely our journey seems, we have a Friend in the valley. Even if your faith is sorely tested at this time, hold onto this hope. He walks with us through the shadows, with love and compassion.
Where the mourner weeping
Sheds the secret tear,
God His watch is keeping,
Though none else be near.
God will never leave thee,
All thy wants He knows,
Feels the pains that grieve thee,
Sees thy cares and woes.
(Heinrich S. Oswald)
These moments of deepest darkness will not be forever. “Weeping may endure for the night”, the scriptures say. “But joy comes in the morning.” It’s not a literal night and day – it’s not going to be 24 hours – but eventually we can find the joy of life again.
And that’s what hope is all about.
May you find the hope, grace and comfort you need for your journey.
[If you found this article helpful or if you know someone who it applies to, please do share it.]