The Pandemic Put Our Grief On Hold. Here's How We're Coping

The isolation of lockdown and not being able to say goodbye properly has made bereavement a disorientating, drawn-out process for many.

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For most of us, lockdown paused life as we know it – but for Kelly Penny, it was yet another devastating blow.

Just weeks before the prime minister’s landmark announcement on March 23, Kelly’s husband Steve had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had no real symptoms other than a lack of appetite and weight loss, which the couple put down to stress. But worsening abdominal pain took them to hospital. Not long after, they were told Steve had oesophageal cancer – and it had spread.

“It was completely out of the blue,” says Kelly, 41, who lives in Poole and is an emergency care assistant for the ambulance service. She was signed off work and the couple – who met nine years ago and married in 2014 – spent a few weeks ticking off activities on Steve’s bucket list. They held a house party with friends, went to Liverpool to watch the football, and attended a Francis Rossi talk (with Steve a massive fan of Status Quo).

But all of that came to a grinding halt with lockdown – their remaining plans were cancelled and they were alone in their home, aside from the odd visit from a healthcare professional and their parents popping by. “I felt like we were left to our own devices,” she says. “It was almost like Steve was left waiting to die.”

Steve passed away at home on April 9, six weeks after his diagnosis. He was 47 years-old.

Kelly and Steve.
Kelly Penny
Kelly and Steve.

The nation was only three weeks into lockdown at this point, and months later, Kelly says it feels as though her grief is still “on hold”. The pandemic changed almost every aspect of our lives – and that includes the way people mourn.

It’s been a busy period for bereavement counsellor Nora Allali-Carling, who runs the counselling practice Your Life Matters. For some people, she says, the stages of grief have been “amplified”. Others haven’t even felt able to begin.

This may be because many didn’t get to say goodbye to the person they loved – especially if they died in a care home or hospital. “There are real issues with denial,” she says. “They don’t feel they can mourn their loved one yet because it’s all so abnormal. It doesn’t feel real.”

The sense of loss is “really, really extraordinary”, she stresses. “because they’ve also lost their last minutes, hours and days with their loved ones. They’ve lost the opportunity to begin grieving and the farewell – they didn’t get to say goodbye.”

““Normally, when you’ve lost your husband – especially being quite young – you’d have your family and friends swarming around you."”

- Kelly Penny

At the height of lockdown, councils limited the number of mourners at funerals, there were delays to memorial services, and people weren’t able to see their support networks until weeks or months after their loss. “While grief is challenging at any time anyway, being in lockdown with Covid-19 has hugely impacted the process of people’s mourning,” says Allali-Carling.

Kelly found the isolation of lockdown particularly challenging, saying she feels like she’s “been kept at arms length” in terms of support. The grieving process has been “drawn out” by not being able to see all her family and friends – let alone her colleagues – since her husband’s death.

“Normally, in that sort of situation where you’ve lost your husband – especially being quite young – you’d have your family and friends swarming around you,” she says. “Losing somebody in normal days, without a pandemic, is probably the worst moment of your life. But there’s almost been a cruelness to it, not being allowed the normality of grieving where you have the people around.”

Natalypaint via Getty Images

“The coronavirus pandemic has made it an incredibly distressing time to be bereaved,” says Andy Langford, clinical director at Cruse Bereavement Care.

“For many, their grief will have been put on hold. This can have a profound impact on the grieving process. When you feel you have no control over how you can grieve, and over how you can experience those last moments with someone, that can complicate how you grieve.”

Rebecca Cooper, chief executive of Widowed and Young (WAY), agrees that the isolation of bereavement has been made worse by lockdown restrictions.

“Many of our members who have been widowed during the pandemic have struggled with not being able to see friends and family,” she says. “Many have told us that not being able to have a hug from friends or family is really difficult.”

Cathryn Hugill, 50, knows this all too well. Her partner Jay Thompson died by suicide in February this year, after suffering with his mental health. He was 49.

Hugill, who is based in the north east of England and worked as a tutor prior to the pandemic, struggled in the aftermath of Jay’s death – particularly when lockdown hit. “It was hard getting the GPs’ support,” she says. “They were preparing for lockdown and most of their contact was via the phone.”

“No one else lives in my house, so I didn’t have a ‘bubble’. Counselling also had to be remote – no more face-to-face contact.”

- Cathryn Hugill

Cathryn and Jay’s sister relied heavily on each other for comfort in the aftermath of his death – each knowing the pain the other was in. But when lockdown happened, they could no longer see each other. All communication moved to phone calls or text messages. “I felt that I was facing the whole thing on my own,” says Cath. “No one else lives in my house, so I didn’t have a ‘bubble’. Counselling also had to be remote – no more face-to-face contact.”

The alienation of lockdown was intense and meant she had nowhere to hide from her feelings. She couldn’t channel her focus into anything else other than the way she felt. “I was a mess,” she says. “I’d do as much as I could, which was normally just sorting my dogs out, a shower, trying to connect with the world through Facebook.

“I drank far too much. I would drink until I cried and cried, screamed and, at some point, I would pass out. Just thinking about how hard that was and the pain and hurt I felt and still feel, still makes me cry.”

Cath and Jay
Cathryn Hugill
Cath and Jay

Reflecting back on that time, she now sees aspects of lockdown in a more positive light. “I’ve realised that facing my grief and my pain has been helpful, although it scared the life out of me – at the beginning I didn’t know if I’d survive it or not. I’ve realised that hiding from it, whether that be going to the gym or getting drunk, doesn’t help. It’s still there.”

Her counsellor has helped her to face her grief head on, she says. “I couldn’t distract myself or my thoughts – I had to face them. I would make notes, we would talk about how the week had been, ways to cope and things to read too.”

Following Steve’s death, Kelly Penny went to stay with her parents despite the strict lockdown restrictions, and after three weeks, her mum came back to stay with her in their house. “I have had the odd friend sleeping over since we’ve been allowed a social bubble,” she adds.

Steve’s funeral was tough because they were only allowed limited numbers and couldn’t hold a wake. “I feel blessed that we could have 30 [people there] but it still wasn’t the 150+ people that I expected to be at his funeral,” she says.

“It upset me Steve couldn’t have the proper funeral procession. His coffin came in the hearse for one last journey from our home address. I wanted the whole procession where they walk in front of the car, but that wasn’t allowed,” she says, her voice wavering.

“They weren’t allowed to carry his coffin into the crematorium so I managed to get my family to do that for me. It’s the little things you would take for granted on a normal funeral, but those little things aren’t able to happen.”

Kelly and Steve on their wedding day.
Kelly and Steve on their wedding day.

These have been two of the hardest parts of grieving during lockdown, says Allali-Carling – not being able to say goodbye to loved ones in person, but also not being able to give them the send off they deserve,

Clients have described to her a sense of letting down the person they lost: “How could I not send my dad off? How wasn’t I able to give my sister the funeral she deserved?” Lockdown meant people had to do the best they could with what they had – but that doesn’t take away the guilt they might be feeling.

“The whole ritual of the funeral is quite an important part of the grieving process, so having limited numbers, having social distancing, not being able to be physical with people at the end, the lack of flowers – it all feels quite cold,” says Allali-Carling “If you’re burying a loved one, it’s someone that everyone’s loved, and lived to love. It’s very difficult to reconcile that cold, inhumane process with losing a loved one.”

Allali-Carling has spoken to other counsellors who have all noticed an increase in symptoms of poor mental health among bereaved clients .Sometimes the grief has come out as anger (breaking and smashing things is common) or depression. In some cases, it’s manifested as physical pain.

For people with an existing history of mental health issues, it can trigger alcohol and substance abuse, as well as eating disorders, she adds – a lot of clients will say they eat to comfort themselves.

Kelly is signed off work until October but she’s made a decision that she has to go back by then for the sake of her mental health. “If I leave it any longer, I’m going to be quite anxious about going back,” she says.

But she’s already apprehensive. “I think in a way, I’m delaying the grief,” she says, “because when people see me at work, I’m going to have the sympathy looks, and it’s almost like you’re opening up a wound again.”

Cath is also struggling with this. She took redundancy so she wouldn’t have to go back. Instead, she’s looking to start her own business. “It’s like I’ve got to face a lot of things all over again – or a lot of things that didn’t happen initially because lockdown came so soon afterwards. I’ve healed a little through lockdown, but also hurt a lot again now too,” she says. “I know I’m not ready to face the job I had.”

While both women have been been having phone counselling, Kelly says she would have felt more comfortable with face-to-face support. But Covid-19 made this impossible, too.

She’s had five sessions so far. “I don’t find they necessarily give me a coping mechanism or any strategies as such, but it does allow me to talk about what’s happened,” she says. “I’m almost like a pressure cooker – in between my counselling sessions things bubble up and I manage to release the pressure by having a good cry and a rant down the phone to my counsellor.”

The normality she desperately craves still seems miles away. And even when there is some semblance of routine to return to, she realises that for her it won’t be normal without Steve. “You can’t get back to normal because normal isn’t out there at the moment,” she says. “I’m never going to get my normal back.”

In absence of the funeral she hoped her husband would have, she is planning a memorial service so that extended friends and family can pay their respects. Her hope is that it will be able to go ahead next year – but even the process of planning it is up in the air as we wait for news of a Covid-19 vaccine.

“I wonder once it’s gone past a year of his death, will people still want to come to his memorial service?” she asks. “Will he still be in their thoughts that far on? I wonder if I’ll be holding a memorial service that not as many people come to because time has moved on.”

Kelly and Steve
Kelly and Steve

In the sea of sadness, there are glimmers of hope. Kelly was able to see some of Steve’s friends recently – they went out for a meal and swapped memories. She finds talking about her husband comforting, even when it gets her upset.

Cath started going back to the gym and even went on holiday with her family. “Although I know I’ll never be the same person – I know I’ll always miss Jay and love him as deeply, if not more, than I ever did – I’ve got to try now to recreate myself,” she says. “I’ve been on holiday last week with my brother and his family and for the first time this year, I found myself starting to relax and I surprised even myself when I heard myself laughing.”

One of the simplest things people can do to help their grief is to create a ritual at home that honours the person lost, says Allali-Carling. This could be playing their favourite music, lighting a candle for them, cooking their favourite food, digging out a photo you like and framing it, or even just saying ‘goodnight’ to them each night. The aim is to make space to remember them at home.

She also urges people to try and exercise outdoors at least once a day – even if that’s just going for a walk – and to keep in contact with close family members and friends. It might be helpful to plan a memorial with them for a later date when restrictions on mass gatherings ease.

Bereavement counsellors can help to provide support to those struggling, as can online bereavement groups – WAY’s 3,500 members have been meeting up virtually via Zoom, holding weekly online pub quizzes and bingo sessions. Andy Langford at Cruse says, “the most important thing is to keep in contact with others as you’re going through this unprecedented and upsetting experience.”

Kelly is now looking to the future. She hopes that when restrictions ease a bit she’ll be able to scatter her husband’s ashes at his favourite football ground and give him “the proper memorial service he deserves”.

No matter how much it hurts or upsets her, she’ll continue to share his story. “I’ve got to keep talking about him because I’ve got to keep his memory alive,” she says. “He needs to live on through me, now.”

Covid-19 is more than a news story – it has changed every aspect of life in the UK. We are following how Britain is experiencing this crisis, the different stages of collective emotion, reaction and resilience. You can tell us how you are feeling and find further advice and resources here.

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