As inherently social beings, most of us have a need for physical contact with others to provide comfort during difficult emotional times. Losing a loved one during the COVID pandemic brings this into sharp relief, with social isolation making loss and grief a particularly challenging experience at the current time.
Whilst citizens of countries across the globe are living under varying degrees of lockdown, hundreds of thousands of people will lose someone close to them. For some, this loss will be a direct result of their loved one being infected with COVID. For others, who could be considered secondary victims of the virus, life-saving care may be unavailable if healthcare systems become overwhelmed, as the World Health Organisation has warned. There will also be a third group of people who lose their life during the lockdown for reasons unconnected to COVID. However, the friends and family of all these people have one thing in common – they will all experience this loss during social measures unprecedented during the lifetime of many in the population. That is, regardless of the cause of death, COVID will cast a long shadow over all experiences of bereavement during this period.
Globally, thousands of people are dying in hospitals every day after contracting COVID. Due to the infectious nature of the virus and the risk of further contamination, most are dying without loved ones being present. Similar scenes are being replicated in care homes and nursing homes, which have also shut their doors to visitors in order to protect their residents and staff. As a result, COVID is stripping thousands of the ability to provide physical and emotional support during their loved one’s final minutes and hours, whether in a hospital or other care facility. For many, the thought of a friend or family member spending this time alone or with relative strangers is distressing. In rare instances, and where the person is not believed to have contracted the virus, next-of-kin might be given the opportunity to see their loved one while palliative care is ongoing, but this will be for a matter of minutes and social distancing is likely to still be essential. For those given this opportunity, having to maintain a two-metre distance and, consequently, not being able to give their loved one a hug or a kiss, or even hold their hand, will be heart wrenching. This would be a distressing experience when seeing someone who is close to you who is unwell, but it is particularly harrowing when you know this is likely to be your last chance to see that person alive.
When the news comes during the lockdown that a loved one has sadly passed away, there will be many people who are physically isolated and unable to receive physical comfort from those closest to them in their time of loss. Those most impacted by this isolation will be people living alone or in an unsupportive social environment and others who are shielding themselves or self-isolating to protect the people they live with. There may be no one there who can provide a desperately needed hug. And while technological communication has been a blessing for so many during this time, this is no substitute for physical comfort. There are only so many things that can be said during a phone or video call and sometimes what we really need is just to be with one another in the same space. As Amer Awan, who recently lost his father, explained “When you can’t even hug your mother two hours after your father passes away, that pain really does affect you … It hurts so much”.
The separation that we are experiencing at the moment brings loneliness, but also uncertainty about how others are coping; not physically seeing people removes one of our barometers for judging their wellbeing. When you are concerned about how someone is managing their grief, or you fear they might be ‘putting on a brave face’ during their technologically-mediated contact with you, this uncertainty adds another layer to the experience of loss during these difficult times.
There is also the issue of funerals – the only ceremonies not banned in the UK under the lockdown measures initially set out by the government. The UK government is still advising that places of worship should close with the exception of ‘funerals attended by immediate families’, despite calls for all funerals to be banned during the lockdown. The way in which these have been conducted has varied across the UK, but the need for social distancing has again resulted in limitations on people’s ability to comfort one another at the crematorium or graveside. There is also the inevitable ‘backlog’ that must be contended with. The sudden increase in the death rate has resulted in temporary mortuaries being set up to store the bodies of those who have passed away and it will take time to provide each of these people with the ceremony that their next-of-kin deem appropriate. However, funerals serve important social functions, which is why we see variations of these in every human culture. They allow us a space for collective mourning and remembrance, so being unable to celebrate the life of our loved ones and grieve for their loss in the ways in which we are socially accustomed presents a further dimension to the way in which COVID is shaping our experiences of loss and grief.
During the lockdown resulting from COVID, it has become clear that many of the social mechanisms to which we would usually turn to help us muddle through grief have now been removed, leaving thousands to deal with their losses in complete or relative physical isolation. While the social distancing measures in place in many countries are essential at this time, my heart goes out to every single person who loses someone close to them during the COVID pandemic.
About the author: Michelle Webster is a lecturer in sociology at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her recent research focuses on familial relationships, food and the experience of chronic conditions over the life course.