Grieving in the time of a pandemic

Grieving in the time of a pandemic

Professionally I have been involved in the work of death, dying and bereavement for most of my adult life, both teaching and writing about the subject. In some senses then I am at ease talking about death and dying, about the pain of loss and the emptiness which the absence of another leaves.

At a personal level, like so many, I have had times when I have lost those very close to me. In those moments I have been forced to do the hard work of grief. In all honesty it has been in those personal times despite my so called ‘head knowledge’ that I have struggled to find a path through and a sense of balance when the waves of emotion overwhelm.

Bereavement is the sense of feeling robbed and bereft. For no matter how expected or anticipated a death or loss is, its ache is still sore, its pain still raw, its touch a cold beyond description. The pain of grief is like no other. It is a total emptiness, feeling abandoned and bereft and a searching which never seems to end.

This sense of lost-ness is beautifully conveyed in the original word for ‘bereavement’ from the Old English- ‘bereafian’ which denotes a sense of deprivation, of being robbed by someone, of being seized or grabbed out of living and life.

It is this feeling of being robbed that has been described to me in the last few days in my conversations with people who have had to endure the death of a loved one, someone they knew or who they cared for to Coronavirus.

This pandemic robs you. It robs you of time. It robs you of the moments when you would have been with another to say goodbye. It robs you of the touch, of the assuring smile, of the ability simply to wipe away a tear, of the chance just to be there. For to be with another at such times is to be still, to be in a touching place between life and death, between presence and absence.

This pandemic has robbed us of our traditions of saying goodbye. This is true of those who have died whether of Covid or for any other reason. It has robbed us of those moments when we find ourselves comforted by others; family have literally to be two metres apart unable to hug and console. It has robbed us of times when a song, a piece of music or hymn has sparked a memory and given familiar reassurance. It has robbed us of the rituals and rhythms of funeral and wake, of tradition and association. It has robbed us of the conversations which have sparked laughter even from the depths of sadness. It has robbed us of our ability to be with others, to reminiscence and remember.

This is in no way to deny or forget that undertakers and funeral directors, clergy and officiants are doing amazing jobs to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible not least through ‘Zoom funerals’ and video links. But strangely that very ‘connection’ has for many of us felt artificial serving only to confirm the sense of bereftness.

But out of such a sense of futility there are those who have been working hard to ensure that we can grieve despite the pandemic.

I wrote last week bout how important it was that we all made efforts to ensure that even if far from perfect there is a chance for people to say goodbye. I was therefore very pleased that a few days ago the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges along with Marie Curie and Scottish Care was able to publish some guidance to help this process. Huge thanks to Professor Andrew Elder for championing this and getting this done. 

Then on Wednesday we saw the publication the first Bereavement Charter for Children and Adults in Scotland. Over the last eighteen months I have been honoured to chair the working group of practitioners from across a whole range of organisations who have come together because they believed that Scotland needed to get better at dealing with death and dying. They devised the Charter as part of a national movement to get us all reflecting more about the role that grieving and supporting those who grieve should play in our lives and in our communities. 

No one could have imagined that the Bereavement Charter would be launched in such strange and disturbing times. Its messages have never been more important or necessary.

The next few weeks we will be all of us be rightly focussed on beating this virus. We will also be concerned about those most impacted in families and as professionals in the NHS and in care homes and home care. But after we get through to the end even if it is just the beginning of the end we will still be robbed of so many who have died, still needing to do the work of grieving.

We will need to do a lot to support those who are formal carers especially those who have faced grief at its most acute. For no matter how skilled and experienced you are we all need to be supported and upheld through our grieving, we all need to find a solace that comforts us in our weakness. When we have a sense of futility and despair, both personally and professionally, we need there to be space to open up and pour out our feelings; we need there to be people who have time and capacity simply to be present and there for us.

That will necessitate real change. There will be few of us who will be left untouched by this pandemic. Few of us will not know someone, however distant, who has been lost to the virus. We will all of us need to grieve both as a nation and as individuals. We need to be given space and time for that to happen.

We will, I hope, have a National Day of Mourning. I hope we will also as individuals and families have space for formal memorial services and events to recognise those who have died. But I also hope we will start to change the way we think about death and dying, the ways we need to begin again to restore the lives of those who are grieving and give solace to their hurt. Perhaps as a society in recent decades we have lost the capacity to share the grief of others and have individualised death, dying and loss. This surely has to change. We owe it to those who have died that their loss should mould us into a new tomorrow.

If Coronavirus leaves us with anything I hope it will be a determination not only to live better but also to be more comfortable and open in the face of dying as individuals and as a nation, for it is in that light, I am convinced, that we end up living our lives to the full.

Donald Macaskill