Many bereaved people feel that their “grief has been suspended” due to social restrictions, an eminent psychotherapist has warned.
The warning comes after England was put into a new national lockdown ahead of Remembrance Sunday.
It also comes as a new poll highlighted how restrictions around funerals, as well as social distancing rules, are making grieving more difficult.
In the latest Art of Dying Well podcast, Julia Samuel, an eminent psychotherapist who has worked with the bereaved for over 30 years, described the current situation as “totally surreal”.
“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 Savanta ComRes/Art of Dying Well poll found that the bereaved are commonly finding help and support through family and friends.
Commissioned by the Centre for the Art of Dying Well at St Mary’s University for November, the month that people particularly remember the dead and the bereaved, 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 impacts of the pandemic have made the grieving process especially difficult.
The results highlight the breadth of the challenge experienced by the UK population during the pandemic; with those directly affected 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.
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.
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/cremation; and visiting restrictions in hospital/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 we’d normally seek support are no longer available.
Ms Samuel said: “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.”
Bereaved women were more likely than men to experience impacts related to the funeral or cremation. Twenty-three per cent of women said that being unable to attend the funeral or cremation made the grieving process especially difficult, compared to 18 per cent of men, while 21 per cent of women selected having to adhere to social distancing rules at the funeral/cremation (16 per cent for men).
Commenting on the results of the poll and drawing on his professional experience, 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.
Mr Allcock explained how 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,” he said of such funerals. “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 (23 per cent) citing friends and family for this purpose. Around one in 10 used each of; time off from work (12 per cent), their faith/faith community (11 per cent), doing things that bring back good memories (11 per cent), helpline (10 per cent), counselling (nine per cent) and online resources/social media (nine per cent).
Women (27 per cent) were more likely than men (19 per cent) to have used friends and family for help and support.
A third (35 per cent) said they hadn’t used any specific means of help and support. This was greatest among those aged 55+ (63 per cent said this, compared to 15 per cent of 18-34 year olds and 27 per cent of 35-54 year olds). Conversely, those in the 55+ age group are less likely to have used any of the means of help and support tested compared to those aged 18-34 and 35-54.
Those in C2DE social grades were more likely to not use any means of help and support compared to those in ABC1 social grades (44 per cent vs 29 per cent).
Commenting on the need for emotional support the Art of Dying Well’s Dr Lynn Bassett, who has worked extensively with the bereaved 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.”
Acknowledging that November is traditionally the month when people remember the dead, Dr Bassett urged people to also make a special effort to remember those who are living with grief as well.
“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,” she said.
“Finding ways to share information about the live-streamed memorial services that take place in November can bring the comfort of candlelight and familiar words into the sitting room of someone who is feeling very alone.”
Following the tidal wave of grief and bereavement during 2020 there will be a further opportunity for reflection with the start of National Grief Awareness Week which takes place from 2nd to 8th December and many churches will be holding online remembrance services during November.
Savanta ComRes surveyed 2,111 UK adults aged 18+ online between 23rd and 26th October 2020. Data were weighted to be nationally representative of all UK adults by age, gender region and social grade.
Picture: Illustration of someone watching a funeral on a phone. (Art of Dying Well).