Illustration by Clara Wright
CW: This series talks openly about death.
When the pandemic hit, optimists believed that this was an opportunity for change. Change in how we viewed our relationship with work. Change in how we viewed our relationship with nature and the environment. Change in how we viewed our relationship with our communities. Even change in how we talked about grief.
It’s difficult to precisely say what our attitudes about grief were before the pandemic. Much of the research previously has focused on those dying, with limited research on those left behind. To a certain extent, this is understandable. As social psychologist Professor Sheldon Solomon explains, we are designed to accept that death happens to everyone except us. Studies have shown that when we are confronted with death, the brain enacts the ‘Terror Management Theory’ and protects itself using a variety of techniques including denial and distraction. It is this ingrained reluctance to interact with death that has no doubt shaped our beliefs and systems around grief.
Since March 2020, around 629,000 people have died in the UK, including 129,000 deaths caused by Covid19. Recent research has shown that for every death, nine people are left bereaved. This means that in the UK, over 5.5 million people have become bereaved since March 2020. In addition to the pain of losing a loved one, all of these deaths, whether they were caused by Covid or not, have been impacted by sweeping regulations. Travel restrictions, limited or no contact before death, restricted funeral arrangements and social isolation have compounded many people’s grief, with professionals now predicting a rise in people suffering from Traumatic or Prolonged Grief Disorder.
For me, this grief is not theoretical. My gran died in December 2020. She was 96. She was a tiny little lady from Norfolk who, even in her final months, was full of life and joy. She had stopped driving the year before and missed travelling up and down the North Norfolk coast, spotting oystercatchers and elusive grey seals. Instead, she continued gardening and now travelled the world via the National Geographic channel. From a very young age, my brother and I would stay with her every weekend, running around and exploring each nook and cranny of her garden. When I got older and eventually went to university, I rang her every weekend and we would chat about everything and nothing. Two years ago I even introduced her to my partner. She was, as difficult as it is to use the past tense, there for every moment.
When I was told she had gone into hospital, I thought back to all those articles that had talked about change. I wondered what, if any, positive change there would be when it came to this new world of grief. Statistics would indicate that change was starting to happen. In May this year, Marie Curie found that 47% of adults in the UK now feel more compassionate towards people who are grieving, with 54% saying that the pandemic has encouraged them to think about their mortality. This year 58 libraries registered interest in becoming Death Positive Libraries, spaces where activities, books and art are used to remove the taboo about talking about death. There has been so much interest that the scheme is now set to roll out nationwide. And last year saw the launch of the Good Grief Festival, a festival designed to help people talk, think and learn about grief and featured over 70 events, more than 100 speakers and 12,000 participants.
Yet despite all this, how meaningful was this change? Without knowing how low the bar was originally, how do we know how far we’ve really progressed? I’ve received generous support from my friends and colleagues but I’ve also been shocked by what I can only hope were other people’s thoughtless words and actions. How much has society changed when outside a study?
And what about the systems around us? Studies have shown that hospices, community and hospital settings were already struggling before the pandemic. 60% of those bereaved said they received no support and 74% of those who were classed as high or severely vulnerable were not accessing any formal support. There is still no legal right for paid time off for bereavement and researchers at Leeds and Sheffield Universities have found that there were limited bereavement support services available for ethnic minorities.
Grief is personal but it is also universal. Just as we encounter all the highs of life, we will also encounter all of its lows. The last eighteen months has been for many a crash course in compounded trauma. But in that trauma are elements that we all share. Whether it’s trying to figure out if your grief is good, deciding how to talk about your grief, to working out what to do with your digital legacy and planning for the future. So that’s what this column is here for; to explore grief in all its intricacies and the ways it touches our lives. This is an experience that we will share. Let’s just talk about it.
Just a Note: Bereavement services are available for all. Each article in this column will be accompanied by a charity, database or service that be of help. Hub of Hope is a support database that brings together local, national, peer, community, charity, private and NHS mental health support and services together in one place, including bereavement services. Simply enter your postcode or local area and see what services are near you.