Bereavement challenges in a time of pandemic

After a death from COVID-19, and after a death from any cause in a time of pandemic, there are bereavement challenges that are new and hard, for both bereaved people and their carers. In this blog, Sudden chief executive Mary Williams OBE discusses the impact of death on families and bereavement services at this time of COVID-19 and applauds the efforts of the bereavement NGO community to offer support.

While governments still battle the spread of COVID-19, a new challenge is emerging: the challenge to help bereaved people in a time of pandemic.

A death from COVID-19 is a shocking, sudden death after a short and increasingly severe illness. To prevent infection, it is usually not possible for families to say goodbye in a normal way.

A death from any cause in a time of pandemic brings additional challenges for everyone who is bereaved. For example, it is ill-advised, or forbidden, for people to meet and hold a normal memorialising event such as a funeral. People whose normal cultural or religious practices involve washing or dressing a dead person’s body are now prevented from doing these things.

Governments are rightly concerned about the perils of isolating people through ‘lockdowns’ that aim to contain the virus, particularly the potential harm to people who are suffering major life challenges, such as poverty, addiction, and problems relating to mental health and physical health. There is also the enormous challenge of being both isolated and bereaved.

As we applaud our medical practitioners for saving so many lives, for those families who are bereaved by COVID-19 (and also by any other causes, particularly sudden causes) their challenges are just beginning.

For some people bereaved at this time, there are acute practical challenges that require immediate intervention from health and social services. For example, imagine the needs of an elderly person with dementia, perhaps also suffering from COVID-19, who was previously cared for by their partner who has died.

For all people who are suddenly bereaved at this time, there will be a range of challenges, compounded by the need for social distancing. Contact from family, friends, carers, and basic human needs, such as to have a hug, are prevented. Or these things are restricted to people with whom the bereaved are self-isolated.

Bereavement charities and mental health services around the world are working to ensure we help, as best we can, with the resources we have. A wealth of information is being published online and bereavement helplines are open.

Across the world, we are all having to help each other in new, and often virtual, ways. We are blessed with the power of phone lines and the internet to enable many people to access information, talk and share their feelings and thoughts online, at a time when, cruelly, it is not possible to say goodbye to someone who is dying, it is not possible to help prepare their body for a funeral event, it is not possible to safely hold a mass gathering of family and friends to mourn and celebrate.

We know, from the findings of academia and practitioners, that early care of suddenly bereaved people is very important. It can prevent the onset of serious conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can blight lives for years.

People who have been bereaved suddenly need to be looked after in the early weeks. They need to feel safe. They need to be informed about symptoms of sudden bereavement so they are prepared. They need to feel supported, through simple tips regarding self-care at this time.

The good news is that meeting suddenly bereaved people’s practical needs and giving them information and support to enable self-care can really help make a difference to their mental health outcomes and enable a normal grieving process.

I applaud all bereavement services for rallying together, to help people bereaved by any cause, including COVID-19, in these very challenging times, and urge a focus on a straightforward approach that helps people through the early weeks in practical, simple ways that enable people to feel safe and supported.

About the author

Mary Williams OBE is chief executive of Sudden. Sudden is a global initiative to help people bereaved by any sudden cause and also to help the professional standards of their carers. Mary is also chief executive of Brake. Brake is a road safety charity providing the National Road Victim Service in the UK for families bereaved by death on the road, including an acclaimed and government-backed national helpline and information service. Brake also operates globally and has a domestic branch in New Zealand too.