Bereavement and COVID-19

7 December 2020

Written by senior bereavement advisor, Anne Wadey

These are personal musings and questions rather than firm conclusions prompted by my personal experience, reading and hearing discussions about the need for bereavement focussed organisations to be able to respond specifically to ‘covid deaths’ together with the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Long View’ which looks to history to find possible precedents for current times.

Research is starting to show that people experiencing bereavement when their loved one has died from coronavirus infection are finding grief even more difficult than people bereaved as a result of other diseases, even during similar lockdown or tiered restrictions.

What are the key differences in the experience of these families that may be contributing? Lack of contact and the opportunity to say goodbye is suggested as one element. I was fortunate in my own experience of my mother’s death in a care home during lockdown. The home called us the day before she died, keeping their promise that if we reached an ‘end of life’ time (not from covid), my sister and I would be permitted to be with her. I spent several hours helping to care for her during that day which I found to be significant and helpful. But I had not been allowed to see her during the previous 4½ months and her dementia meant that a ‘window visit’ would have been too confusing and upsetting for her. I was shocked when I saw her, at the weight loss and physical deterioration that had taken place during lockdown that the staff, good though they are, had not made us aware of. I am, however, grateful that we did not have to say goodbye via WhatsApp or Skype as many families have had to, with heroically compassionate efforts by clinical staff.

It is the final goodbye in life that seems to distinguish the covid death from those from other natural causes, as all funerals have been restricted, together with the cruelty of the publicity attracted by covid deniers. Yet the vast majority of unnatural deaths, from accident, homicide or suicide, also present no opportunity for a final farewell and frequently even less warning as well as those from heart attacks, catastrophic strokes and ruptured aneurysms, all of which may be fatal within seconds or minutes.

I am mindful of the thousands of families who experienced the deaths of one or more members and many more in their communities during World War I. Initially those families with enough wealth were able to bring bodies home (if that was physically possible) but these were a very small proportion. After a while, I have just discovered, that was forbidden even for the privileged few for whom it might have been feasible. There was little contact for weeks or months before the death and for some the dreadful uncertainty of ‘missing in action – believed killed’, no body to lay out or sit with in the era when most deaths occurred at home and a wake of some kind was normal and no place to visit in the months following. For around 300,000 men (from the UK and Commonwealth) there never would be a grave even after War Graves cemeteries were established, just names inscribed on a variety of memorials in the years following WWI. There is a memorial in Basra, Iraq, to 40,500 British and Commonwealth forces who died in Mesopotamia between Autumn 1914 to Summer 1921 whose final resting places are not known. I imagine very few of their families were ever able to visit in the years after the memorial was erected and the politics of the region will have prevented many descendants visiting since.

Coronavirus has killed many within a short time – I remarked recently that the UK total had reached the equivalent of the joined populations of both the town where I live and the nearest town down the A1 – a sobering way of visualising the pandemic’s effect, and the number of deaths has risen since then. However, many though by no means all, were already vulnerable through age and co-morbidities. There will not be the post-covid generation of spinsters that followed WWI.

I do not wish to belittle the grief of anyone bereaved through covid and especially the element of guilt that may be present if the bereaved person seems to have been the means of transmission to the person who died. It is one of many factors that may make grief turn from ‘normal’ to ‘complicated’. I wonder, however, if we need to beware of increasing distress through suggesting that covid deaths are special in some way. Each death and experience of grief is unique and each bereaved person we seek to support is an individual with their own experience of life and death in which covid may be part of the picture.