A yellow heart has been widely shared across the UK during lockdown, giving many bereaved families a meaningful opportunity to visibly share their loss and grief. Originating from a single bereaved family, this simple and powerful movement has showcased one of many new forms of grieving developed during the time of Covid-19. In the face of lockdown, social distancing and other new norms, the experience of grieving and bereavement is no longer the same as before. It requires revised, compromised and even completely new ways to grieve and to deal with bereavement. It is fascinating to see how many bereaved people have spontaneously and creatively found their own ways to grieve and how wider society has supported these experiences. Despite this, it is heart-breaking to see that many others are still being left in isolation and are powerless to face their loss. In light of this contrasting picture, it is both important and necessary to understand how Covid-19 has changed the experience of grieving and bereavement, and how bereaved people can be better supported in this changed situation.
Has Covid-19 made grieving harder or easier?
This is a question that repeatedly strikes me when reading stories and watching videos about the experiences of bereaved people during this pandemic. Indeed, there are increased challenges for bereaved people. Tough regulations, such as social distancing rules and visiting restrictions, have strongly suppressed individual capability to face and deal with loss. For many people, it may be a distressing experience if they are unable to comfort their loved one in their dying moments. This distress may be experienced when having to minimise or cancel the planned funeral. What may be more distressing is that the pre-existing structures of mourning and grieving have become largely absent during this time. This may challenge many bereaved people’s ability to find relevant means to make sense of their loss and process their grief. The vulnerability of bereaved people in this pandemic could be further exacerbated by social inequalities. As revealed by ONS, black and ethnic minority people have been found to be one of the worst-hit groups for Covid-19 related deaths. The marginalisation involved in these disadvantaged deaths could further compound the difficulties of those bereaved as they struggle to comprehend their loss.
However, there is also considerable evidence showing that more support has become available for bereaved people, from both informal and formal sources. Despite the lockdown and social distancing rules, various types of support, including emotional, practical and social, have been seen within families, between friends and across neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, bereaved people may receive further comfort and meaning for their loss, when they share grief with other bereaved people with similar experiences and receive condolence from the wider society. In addition to the increased informal support, a range of resources have been assembled for bereaved people in the UK by the central government, professional organisations, charities and local authorities. These formalised support resources are often informative and instructive and can help guide bereaved people to deal with the multifaceted issues associated with loss and grief.
The answer to the question of whether Covid-19 has made grieving harder or easier may not be straightforward but is rather conditional. Some bereaved people may find their grieving easier as there is more support. Others may find their grieving harder due to the sense of incompetence and helplessness as a result of increased social restrictions and inequalities. Central to the conditionality of these experiences is the environmental differences that bereaved people are situated in. The quantity and quality of the available support in a given environment can play a significant role in shaping bereaved people’s experiences[i]. It is also important to acknowledge that humans are inherently resilient, thus bereaved people may not only draw on existing support but could also revise the status quo and create new resources[ii]. For example, a group in the UK has been formed by bereaved families to challenge the government’s handling of Covid-19, as a means of seeking justification for their loss. This challenge may be impossible or at least more difficult, however, in countries with few legal and democratic structures to support such actions. This variance can have significant impacts on the experiences of loss and bereavement. As such, whether an environment has sufficient resources and supportive structures is key for shaping bereavement experiences and further supporting bereaved people during Covid-19.
A grief literate community and society
The importance of the social environment when it comes to
experiences of bereavement resonates with the idea of ‘grief literacy’[iii].
This encourages both the public and professionals to be more knowledgeable and proactively support people
experiencing loss and grief. By developing a more sympathetic, inclusive and
interdependent atmosphere, bereaved people could not only access sufficient ‘official’
support resources but may also feel comfortable and motivated to draw on informal
resources within families and communities to grieve and live with loss. This environment could form an integrated informal
support network, which promotes care, social connectedness and empathy. This may
facilitate mutual understandings and interdependent support through daily
interactions, community-based activities and other special occasions, such as
the anniversary of a death. Based on a broader framework of compassionate
communities, this grief literate environment emphasises a
community-based approach, empowering ordinary people to respond and cope with
loss and grief. This approach would enable bereaved people to not over-rely on the
‘clinical lore’[iv] of psychotherapy and medical interventions. Instead,
they could more actively draw on available norms and values to negotiate and
contest meanings for loss in their ongoing day-to-day life.
To create a grief literate
environment in the context of Covid-19 is not a simple task and will require a rigorous
approach. As a significant force for bereavement support during the Covid-19
outbreak, communities should continue to play a primary role in developing the
grief literate culture both during and after the outbreak. This approach would also
require communities to adopt a more inclusive and individualised approach,
promoting grief literacy for people from different social, religious, ethical,
age and gender groups. To further develop more context-specific grief literacy,
self-help groups in non-clinical settings could provide a valuable model. This
model may enable bereaved people with similar backgrounds and experiences to
gain mutual understandings and support in a more spontaneous manner. However,
this community-based bereavement support structure should not stand alone. The
roles of social and health care workers and bereavement specialists are equally
important, ensuring professional care is available alongside compassionate
communities for those with further needs and difficulties. Support and guidance
from both the public and policy domains could also complement and reinforce the
bereavement support in communities. Ultimately, the continuous cooperation of
the different stakeholders above is required to maintain and further encourage a
culture of grief literacy across society. This cooperation would allow for a
‘new’ structure of bereavement support in the changed world following Covid-19.
[i] Valentine, C. A. (2009). Continuing bonds after bereavement: A cross-cultural perspective. Bereavement Care, 28(2), 6-11.
[ii] Fang, C. (2019). Exploring social constructions of bereaved people’s identity in mainland China: a qualitative approach. Mortality
[iii] Breen, L., Kawashima, D., Joy, K., Cadell, S., Roth, D., Chow, A., & Macdonald, M. (2020) Grief literacy: A call to action for compassionate communities, Death Studies.
[iv] Walter, T. (1999). On bereavement the culture of grief: Buckingham England: Open University Press.
C.Fang@bath.ac.uk; 3.11, 3 East, University of Bath, BA2 7AY, Bath, UK.
Dr Chao Fang is a research associate at the Centre for Death and Society at University of Bath. He has worked closely with the End of Life Care Studies Group on the Mitori Project to investigate end of life care issues between the UK and Japan. He is currently working on a cross-cultural project exploring emotional loneliness of people living in retirement communities in the UK and Australia. His research interests lie in bereavement, ageing, end of life care and cross-cultural comparisons.