7 Things to Know About Grieving During COVID-19

What it’s like to lose loved ones and attend funerals during the pandemic

Posted Sep 24, 2020

Pexels/ Kristina Tripkovic
Source: Pexels/ Kristina Tripkovic

This has been a strange and unchartered year for many, filled with more than its fair share of uncertainty and anguish. A death in these difficult times might feel like simply too much to bear – I know it has done for me at points. Here’s everything I’ve learned about the painful experience of losing loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1.  It doesn’t make it better if it a death wasn’t COVID-19 related! I’ve recently found myself repeatedly having conversations where people ask me if the person I am grieving died of COVID-19. When I tell them the person died of another cause, they often seem relieved and say “Oh, thank God!” I think people perhaps say this because they are relieved on my behalf that I don’t have to worry about whether I too have contracted COVID-19. Nevertheless, I want to tell them that a death is still a death, and that the fact it is not COVID-19-related really does not lessen my grief or make it any easier.

2.  Those of you attending a funeral will have made different personal decisions regarding the level of physical proximity to others you currently feel comfortable with (this will also depend on whatever government regulations are in place when you read this). It can be difficult when one relative or friend makes to hug another who has decided that they will not be making physical contact with others. Equally, I have seen those who had formerly decided not to touch others become overcome with emotion, and say things like, “I know I said I wasn’t going to hug anyone, but I just have to – come here.”

It’s easy to understand how at these intensely emotional moments in our lives, we long for physical touch, or want to be able to give it to others, and prior decisions go out the window. What I would say is that if you are clinically vulnerable, or living with those who are, it may be helpful to make your stance on this explicitly clear before the funeral, even if just through a quick text or email.

3.  Sometimes words simply will not do, and physical contact makes up much of the language of grief. Without it, I experienced silences that sometimes felt uncomfortable and awkward. This may particularly be the case if you are attending a funeral with children, or a person with impaired understanding, such as a parent or grandparent with dementia. At times, and as a person who is clinically vulnerable, this was one of the aspects I found hardest to bear.

4.  We were required to wear face coverings for the duration of the funeral. It felt extremely odd not to be able to see what was going on in people’s faces during the service; I was surprised by how bereft it left me feeling. The bottom line is that attending a funeral with a group of people in surgical masks feels at best disconcerting and at worst downright apocalyptic.  Be prepared for your mask to potentially fill up with snot and tears, and carry a spare if possible.

5.  Regulations around all aspects of life are continuously changing, and it’s worth managing your expectations and keeping in mind that what you plan for a funeral may change in the time between organising it and it actually happening. This can be both deeply sad as well as anxiety-provoking. Last week we buried my uncle, and had initially been planning to have a 30-person wake afterwards, but by the time the funeral came around, restrictions in the UK had changed so that only six people could meet socially. An exemption was made for funerals (which remained at 30 people), but not for wakes. In my family, we had been looking forward to giving my DJ uncle a proper send off. We’ve committed to doing something bigger at some point in the future, but it was still a real blow.

Just this week in the UK, the number of mourners allowed at the funeral itself has gone down from 30 to 15. Difficult decisions about who gets to attend will have to be made, which can feel extremely unfair and cause added strain and tension. In our family, recordings of funerals that were sent to those who could not be there helped with this.

6.  Rising death rates put pressure on crematoria and morgues, meaning there may be a delay in being able to bury your loved one. As well as meaning that you may not be able to have the funeral as quickly as you had wanted, this could also mean that you are advised not to view your relative’s body due to the effects of time on the body. This might be deeply distressing for you, so it may help to know in advance that it could be a possibility. Whether or not you are affected by this will depend on the time when you read this article and the current rates of infection and death, however, in my experience, this was more of an issue earlier in the year.  

7.  I consider myself extremely lucky that I have been able to attend physical ceremonies for everyone I have lost. It hasn’t been easy, and it certainly hasn’t been everything I would have wanted for them. Nevertheless, throughout this time, communicating regularly with family members and having friends and loved ones check in on me has been a real source of strength. If someone you know has lost someone recently, send them a message or give them a call to see how they are doing. In these uncertain and strange times, we really do need each other more than ever before.