For many of us, bereavement may be the most distressing experience we will ever face. How we react to bereavement will be influenced by many different things, including our age and personality, our cultural background and religious beliefs, the nature of the death and how we cope with loss
Grief is what we feel when somebody we are close to dies. Everyone experiences grief differently and there is no 'normal' or 'right' way to grieve but there are some feelings and reactions which people commonly experience after a death.
Turning to family and friends to help with practical things in your daily life as well as emotional support, is often the best aid at this time. However, the current outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown are posing an additional challenge to people who are experiencing bereavement while not being able to count on their usual support network.
This information sheet is about helping you make sense of your own reactions to loss, what you can do to help yourself and others during this challenging time and what resources you can find for more advice and support.
Reactions to bereavement
This is not an exhaustive list, nor a statement of what you should feel, but gives an idea of common reactions to loss and how these may appear during these challenging times.
Shock and denial: “This can’t be/is not happening…” It may take you a long time to grasp what has happened. The shock can make you numb, and some people at first carry on as if nothing has changed. You may feel disorientated, as if you have lost your place and purpose in life or are living in a different world. It is hard to believe that someone important is not coming back. Denial is a survival mechanism which helps us to pace our feelings of grief by letting in only as much as we can handle. The lack of contact with others is also creating a sense of isolation that may increase the initial confusion.
Pain: “This is unbearable” Feelings of pain and distress (both physical and emotional) following bereavement can be overwhelming and frightening. You may feel as if you are on an emotional roller coaster and at times find it difficult to do even everyday tasks. You may notice changes in appetite and sleep, exhaustion and restlessness, anxiety and irritability. The most overwhelming feeling can be, simply, the sense of loss and the struggle to adjust to that loss.
Anger: “This isn’t fair! Why is this happening?” Anger is a completely natural emotion in response to loss. Death can seem cruel and unfair, especially when you feel someone has died before their time or when you had plans for the future together. We may also feel angry towards the person who has died, angry at ourselves for things we did or didn’t do or say to the person before their death. If other people were involved, you may feel angry towards them too (medical staff, relatives) or with God.
Guilt: “If only I had / hadn’t done…” Guilt is another common reaction. People who have been bereaved often say they feel directly or indirectly responsible for their loved one’s death. You may also feel guilty if you had a difficult or confusing relationship with the person who has died, or if you feel you didn’t do enough to help them when they were alive.
Sometimes we experience also some paranoid thinking, for example that we bring bad luck with us or that something might have happened because we were afraid it might have happened. This is particularly relevant with people who had traumatic or multiple bereavements and it is one thing that is difficult to disclose for fear of being dismissed or sound illogical.
Bargaining: “I will do anything to make this go away…” Bargaining often accompanies guilt. We may think about ways to bring our loved one back. Some people may promise their God or the universe that they will live a better life if only they can have their loved one restored to them. Bargaining can also be associated with guilt and feeling that we could have done something different.
Depression: “What’s the point? Nothing matters anymore…” Depression is often associated with loss and many bereaved people experience feelings of depression following the death of someone close. Life can feel like it no longer holds any meaning and some people say they too want to die. Even though a loss can lead to clinical depression, the depressive feelings associated with the early stage of a loss are common and normal.
The isolation and distance from reality of the lockdown can make this feeling more acute, with uncertainty about how the future will look like.
Longing: Thinking you are hearing or seeing someone who has died is a common experience and can happen when you least expect it. You may find that you can't stop thinking about the events leading up to the death. "Seeing" the person who has died and hearing their voice can happen because the brain is trying to process the death and acknowledge the finality of it.
Anxiety: The current situation has already led to an increase in anxiety or worries to be able to get resources and medical attention. Losing a loved one can often lead to an increase in anxiety and worries of losing another loved one. If you have lost someone during the pandemic, as the focus is continuously on illness and death, it may be difficult to find the space to process the feelings connected to a loss, as you still perceive the threat. You may also become anxious about smaller things that you can control, moving the fear of the uncontrollable here.
Other people's reactions and expectations: One of the hardest things to face when we are bereaved is the way other people react to us. They often do not know what to say or how to respond to our loss. Because they don't know what to say or are worried about saying the wrong thing, people can avoid those who have lost someone. This is hard for us because we may well want to talk about the person who has died. People may expect others to follow a precise timeline of grieving and be surprised if an emotion strikes after months, or indeed, if someone does not show any emotions after having lost a loved one. If it’s a shared loss, people may react in different ways and be surprised or not understand others’ reactions. During the lockdown it may be even harder for people to find a way to connect that is tuned into the emotions of the bereaved – you may even feel overwhelmed or abandoned.
Other challenges during the pandemic
When a loved one dies, those around us often help us get through our grief, with social support (being able to talk to and rely on someone), social recognition (others recognising your loss as friend, child, partner, parent of the deceased) and being able to share rituals specific to our own cultures and spirituality. Grieving is a process and not a task; connecting to others can help us start this process for ourselves. The pandemic has taken away our usual ways to support and be supported and to gather to celebrate the life of someone who has left us.
If you have lost a loved one during the pandemic, because of COVID-19 or a different cause, you may have not even been able to say goodbye. You may not have been able to participate in a funeral, or not been able to organise what you thought your loved one would have wanted.
You may feel that no one really understands, that everyone has their own things to worry about and that the focus is only around the pandemic. If you have lost a loved one because of it, you may also feel unable to escape from hearing about it all the time.
The use of social media, that is keeping us connected to the rest of the world, can also pose a threat of exposing you to more stressors, or, limit our capacity to reach for help and support. It may also make you feel more exhausted and have an impact on your sleep.
Moving through loss
So how do we cope with the loss of a loved one during these difficult times of uncertainty? How can we continue to live our lives in the face of a life-changing event? It’s important to be aware that:
- Grief is not a task to be completed
- Grief is not a ‘problem’, a ‘disease’ or a ‘weakness’
- There is no ‘normal’ timetable for grieving
- Grief is not something to ‘get over’ or ‘work through’ until you get ‘closure’
- Grief is a normal human experience to be supported, witnessed and held
- Grief is an ongoing process with many ups and downs
- Grief is about coping with change and learning to live with loss
- Grief is an experience that, in time, we can grow around
What can help?
Keep in contact. Social distancing is only physical distancing. Even if it can be tough not to be able to receive a hug or share a space with a friend, during this difficult time it is important that you continue to access support from your social network, and let people be aware of your needs.
This may mean, for example, asking your close friends and relatives to check in regularly on you, but also, if the communication gets too overwhelming, to have someone help you manage this – you may not want to talk to everyone just now.
It may be helpful to have others shopping or cooking for you and leaving it at your door, especially if you live alone. It works differently for everyone – some of us prefer to have something to do to keep us busy. For some people, the lockdown has also meant that the world has somehow stopped around the time they lost a loved one, and this has been helpful for their grieving process.
Get through every day, day by day. Try to get out of bed, get dressed, keep hydrated and have regular meals, keep a routine and get some fresh air every day – even taking a walk or opening the window. Small things, like having a hot drink while you are talking with a friend online, can be soothing and help you get through each day.
Think of safety. Some might need considerable time off work whilst others go straight back to working, there isn’t a right or wrong way. However, experiencing difficulty in staying focused is common and if this is happening to you it may not be the right time to go back to work (or home-working), especially if you are also responsible for others or your job requires you to drive vehicles or use machinery.
Think of alternative ways to celebrate your loved one. When the lockdown allows, you will not be alone in the need to commemorate the one you have lost. If you feel the need to repair the lack of a proper ritual, this can be done in your own way and time. Plant a tree, make a trip to a place they loved, read a poem with other people who were connected to your loved one…
Give yourself permission to grieve. You may feel anything from shock to guilt to sorrow to anger to despair and hopelessness. In some situations, you may also feel relief – for example, when someone has died after a long period of extreme suffering. Whatever these feelings are: notice them, name them and make room for them to be here, because they already are.
Expressing your feelings either by talking or perhaps writing or drawing can be therapeutic. Accepting your feelings is not to be confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. Most people don’t ever feel OK about the loss of a loved one. Acceptance in the context of grief means acknowledging the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality.
Acknowledge that at times you will be overwhelmed. In the early stages of grief, painful feelings are often like a tidal wave; they rise up and bowl you over and carry you away. There’s a time and a place for just allowing this to happen; to let yourself be engulfed by the wave. The wave will never actually drown you - even though it feels like it will. And you can always take the observer perspective: ie ‘take a step back’ and observe yourself feeling overwhelmed. This will let you ‘see’ that the waves may knock you around but they cannot harm you.
Learn to anchor yourself. Over time, the waves start to reduce in size. They’re still big, but they’re no longer tidal waves. Sometimes they’ll knock you over. Sometimes they won’t. To anchor yourself when these waves hit, you can practice a very broad focus mindfulness exercise: notice where you are & what you’re doing; notice what you can see, hear, and touch; notice what you are feeling and see if you can name it. Maintain a broad awareness of your surroundings, your actions, and your feelings simultaneously – and this will usually keep you grounded, until the wave subsides.
Develop self-compassion. Be kind to yourself. If someone you loved was suffering, what caring things would you say and do for them? Try talking to yourself and caring for yourself in this way.
Find vitality within your pain. Your grief tells you two very important things: a) you’re still alive, and b) you have a heart. Tune into your heart: connect with your values and carry on with your life, doing the things that are important. And take your grief with you, carrying it gently and carefully, as if it were a child in your arms.
Consider how you can grow from this experience. What might you learn about forgiveness, compassion, letting go, acceptance? How might your own experience benefit others that you care about? Do you notice your heart opening towards others? Your own suffering in life enables you to develop an ‘emotional stethoscope’ with which you can clearly listen in to the pain in others’ hearts.
Continue a bond with your loved one. It is normal and okay to maintain a sense of connection to the loved one you have lost. Grief rituals can be helpful. Holding onto special items, daily habits, private rituals, lighting a candle, prayers, looking at photos, talking to your loved one (it doesn’t mean you’re crazy!), visiting places where you feel close to them, adopting a hobby they enjoyed – these are all ways to continue a bond with your loved one.
Everything changes, nothing remains unchanged. Remember the ancient saying, “This too shall pass.” Remind yourself of this, when the waves are pounding against you. Over time, the waves will get smaller, and the intervals between them will grow longer. (Although even years later, tidal waves can suddenly appear, taking you by surprise).
Practice the 3 R’s of self-care:
- RELAX - grief is exhausting, you may need to rest more often, go at a slower pace, take the pressure of yourself, allow yourself to pause and stop.
- REJUVENATE – replenish your energy, create routines, eat healthily, exercise your body, set small goals, schedule small pleasures, spend time in nature
- RECLAIM – connect to yourself, what is important and meaningful to you? How can you move towards those things a little bit every day?
Appreciate what you still have. While acknowledging what you have lost, also make room to notice what you still have. When we let go of our efforts to make things to be different from how they actually are, when we unhook from our stories about what ‘could’ and ‘should’ have been then we can connect with what is still here to nourish us. Joy and pain can coexist alongside each other. As Khalil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
- Cut your contacts
- Keep your emotions bottled up
- Think you are weak for needing help
- Feel guilty if you are struggling to cope
- Turn to drugs or alcohol – the relief will only be temporary.
Occasionally we can get ‘stuck’ in grief and need some support to learn to live with the loss, perhaps with the help of a counsellor. Medical support and information can be obtained from your GP.
- The gov.uk website contains further links for support and practical organisation, contacts for helplines, communication of the bereavement and funeral arrangements https://www.london.gov.uk/coronavirus/how-cope-bereavement-and-grief-during-coronavirus-outbreak
- The gov.uk website also contains a useful leaflet for people who have experienced loss during COVID-19 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/887996/What_to_do_when_someone_dies_during_the_COVID_19_pandemic.pdf
- A practical guide for relative and carers from Hospiscare https://www.hospiscare.co.uk/uploads/attachments/Resources/After%20Someone%20has%20Died%20v3%20for%20web.pdf
- Positive psychology Crisis Kit https://positivepsychology.com/the-crisis-kit/
- Here you can find bereavement organisations in your local council searching by postcode https://www.gov.uk/find-bereavement-services-from-council
- On the ‘Sudden’ website you can find advice and support for bereaved people https://www.suddendeath.org/covid-19-bereavement/advice-for-bereaved-people
- The Good grief project helps people talk about grief and has produced a number of films, including a recent video about grief during COVID-19 https://thegoodgriefproject.co.uk/2020/04/27/grief-during-a-time-of-covid-19/
- Suggestions to think about when remembering loves ones https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/psychologists-offer-advice-alternative-ways-remember-loved-ones
- The Grief.com website, has a page dedicated to COVID-19 https://grief.com/resources/
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