What it's like to grieve during the Covid-19 pandemic

Grief, at any time or stage in life, is cataclysmic. It crashes into those it reaches in waves, sometimes causing life-long ripples.

In the UK, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to more than 51,000 deaths so far and left the families and friends of its victims bereft. In its wake, there’s a nation in grief.

In his 2015 novel, Max Porter borrowed from Emily Dickinson’s seminal poem to describe grief as ‘the thing with feathers’, telling a story of the long-standing, physical form which grief can take. But so often, it’s too difficult to put words to.

As the words can be hard to find, it’s no surprise that the National Bereavement Alliance reports that people often express feelings of isolation after a bereavement, while recent data from the ONS shows that one in four UK adults have felt loneliness as a result of Covid-19. If we pair these figures together, we start to see the profound implications of grieving during a global pandemic.

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Fran, from Buckinghamshire, lost her husband Steve last month to Covid-19. He passed away the day before his birthday. Their wedding day fell three weeks before his death, and it was the last day that he was well. Three days after they were married, Steve tested positive for Covid-19.

‘The man I love, the man who had spent so many sunlit days in our woodland with me, the man who has been the centre of my world for so long, is dead. Everything has changed’, Fran tells us.

‘I have much to say about the extraordinary experience I have been through; about death during a pandemic, having to isolate when you’ve tested positive, being alone and feeling as though you’re going mad with despair because you’re away from the one person you need to be with.

‘I felt such relief being able to visit Steve but the knowledge that this was because he was going to die was almost too much to bear.’

Soon after the virus came to the UK back in February, most hospitals and care homes in the UK stopped visits as Covid-19 continued to spread.

Throughout this time, many stories have circulated of people losing loved ones without being able to say goodbye because of lockdown restrictions, or of doctors and nurses comforting patients and video calling their families in their final moments.

Emma, from London, lost her grandmother in March this year. She died aged 86 after contracting Covid-19.

For Emma, some of the hardest parts of the experience are directly related to lockdown restrictions.

‘I have a big family and when my nan passed in March, all of us would have loved to have been there for her,’ she explains. ‘But we weren’t even able to go to the hospital to say our goodbyes.

‘The hardest part for me is knowing she didn’t get the send-off she deserved. She was a childminder for years and was loved by so many in the local area.

‘I don’t live with my parents so after losing nan during lockdown, we couldn’t grieve together because we live in different households. I suffer with anxiety and found it incredibly difficult, and I sunk into a bad place for a while.

‘We’re still waiting for her ashes but once we get them, she’ll be laid to rest next to my grandad’.

There will never be a ‘right’ time to grieve but the enormity of living through a pandemic and being hit by such a loss shouldn’t be underestimated.

Many are calling for there to be greater support in place for the bereaved, and others are sharing their experience to get people talking about grief. 

Anna and Louise run Life.Death.Whatever, the Instagram page dedicated to sharing lessons about life and living from those who have experienced grief.

‘Sharing our experiences of grief is not only helpful for people going through something similar, but it can be healing in itself,’ says Louise. ‘Our pain being acknowledged, our experience being ‘seen’ and our voice being heard can be cathartic.

‘Knowing that we are not alone and that someone else is living through something similar, understanding that there are a multitude of ways to cope, finding out that you’re not the only person in the world who is struggling, resonating with someone else’s experience – all these shared experiences help us to find a way to live with grief.’

One of the stories they’ve shared in their project is that of Alice Darby, who lost her dad unexpectedly on September 13 2019, before the pandemic swept across the UK. She was hit by the sudden loss of her father, closely followed by the pandemic.

‘Nothing can prepare you,’ Alice says. ‘Whether you have warning or not, there is no training manual for how to deal with the death of a loved one.

‘We lost my dad the no warning way. One moment he was there, the next he was not. I sway between which would have been “easier” and ultimately, either way results in loss and any situation is hard.

‘He was the biggest character with the strongest, kindest and most generous soul in our world. The shock and sudden loss are the hardest things. We miss him every day, now we’re just trying to make him proud’’

Alice’s words will likely ring true for anyone that’s experienced grief. There is no one-size-fits-all guide on how to overcome the worst of it.

But when grief arrives simultaneously with one of the most unsettling times in modern history, the normal checklist on how best to grieve doesn’t apply – it can’t, because there is so much we cannot do.

Around the world, Covid-19 cases are rising every day. The chance to say one last ‘I love you’ and a final goodbye continues to be taken away from families across the globe.

In the coming months, grief could touch us all in some way. What we must know is that right next to where it might perch, also sits hope.

Need support? Contact the Samaritans

For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.

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