Our bereavement volunteers’ lockdown diaries

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we started a research project to capture people’s experience of bereavement support. Here's what we learnt.

By Eve Wilson · January 27, 2021

Just over a year ago, it was start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was clear then that we were facing unprecedented times. People were going to have to cope with bereavement, without being able to connect with friends, family and community.

We knew we wanted to capture people’s experiences during this uncertain time. It was important to know what it was like for bereaved people, and the volunteers who supported them.

We wanted to find out how communities were coping with these changing experiences of grief. This would mean we could help people during the pandemic. So, we started a research project to capture people’s experience of bereavement support.

Using diaries to understand bereavement

We asked some of our volunteers to keep diaries, to help us understand the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on grief.

Between May and September 2020 (during and after the first period of Lockdown), eight bereavement support volunteers took part. The diarists were either:

  • Cruse Bereavement Volunteers, offering bereavement support across the UK,
  • Volunteer Bereavement Supporters, offering peer support to fellow residents in ExtraCare retirement villages.

The diarists were able to keep written, typed or voice-recorded diaries – whatever they were comfortable with.

We have published a report to share our findings. These have provided us with ideas of on how to support people in difficult and changing times. They have also given us a fascinating snapshot into the daily lives of people who have supported others during extraordinary circumstances.

Key themes from the bereavement journals

One challenge that faced during the pandemic was the absence of normal grieving and remembrance practices. The restrictions meant bereaved people couldn’t always come together at a funeral. However, there have been displays of community support that have proved valuable.

“Whilst social distancing has prevented ‘wakes’ some clients have left the home onto the chapel and found their neighbouring street to be lined with people. Often the clients speak of this being overwhelming and they will remember these scenes forever. They have found a sense of community that they didn’t know exists and have been surprised by the acknowledgement and support of those neighbours; their level of help and support and the level of compassion.” (Bereavement Volunteer – 25th June)

The Bereavement Supporters in ExtraCare also went to great lengths to replace different kinds of remembrance experiences. This included such residents gathering on their apartment balconies to sing songs, hear prayers and listen to eulogies:

“We said farewell to one of our residents yesterday… many of us from our balconies as the hearse moved off to the very small, family funeral.” (Bereavement Supporter – 7th May)

Bereavement Supporter volunteers noted that, when there wasn’t an opportunity to  collectively grieve and acknowledge a death, the grieving process was arrested:

“Some of us haven’t started grieving because we haven’t come together yet…that conversation is still on hold.” (Bereavement Supporter)

“Some have benefitted from the time and lack of pressure during the lockdown… Some of my clients have been relieved of pressures from family traditions which they sometimes find overwhelming…Another client has been, very much, missing the reassurance of friends and family …” (Bereavement Volunteer – early August)

Another surprising finding from the diaries was that some people were finding bereavement easier to manage during the pandemic. This is because they felt liberated from the social pressure to appear ‘normal’ and okay. It allowed them to privately grieve, withdraw and feel sad.

During Lockdown, some bereaved people reported that their grief was easier to bear. This was because nobody was enjoying life, at least not visibly or openly. This made anniversaries and special occasions easier to cope with.

“Father’s Day this week and a client grieving for her father is finding it very tough and painful. She is thankful however that pubs and restaurants are still closed because she feels angry and resentful when she sees other fathers out there enjoying family time when she has not got her father there to celebrate with. Therefore, on Sunday when we are still not allowed out she is protected from that source of pain” (BV2 – 22nd June)

However, we know grief is a unique and personal experience. For some, their grief  has been very challenging. This is due to the isolation, lack of activities and support networks.

“My client…is finding the lack of community activity very challenging. It is also difficult for signposting because so many groups are not meeting and she does not have access to a computer.  She lives alone in a house and has unhelpful neighbours. Covid-19 has really reduced any of those restoration after loss activities for her.” (Bereavement Volunteer – 13th July)

People who received support from Cruse during Lockdown valued emotional support more than ever. This was due to other support networks not being available, and activities for coping with a bereavement were suspended.

“My clients have all been very grateful that I (we) have taken that time to just listen and be there for them in such uncertain and restricting circumstances.” (Bereavement Volunteer)

Like many other charities and support organisations, Cruse continued to deliver services throughout the pandemic. We switched their face-to-face services to telephone support. Some clients who accessed telephone support actually found this suited their needs better.

“I was happy with my telephone support especially when I got upset during many of the sessions as I didn’t feel probably as embarrassed as I would’ve been if it had been face to face, plus I was sat in my own home which made me feel more at ease.” (Client survey response, October)

What we have learnt

I’d like to thank all the volunteers who so generously and honestly shared their thoughts and feelings. They’ve helped us to capture this little piece of history in the making.

We’re really pleased with how the diaries have given an insight into how people support each other through bereavement. What we’ve seen is deeper and subtler than we could have discovered from other methods, such as surveys or feedback forms. We’ve made a series of recommendations based on the findings. We hope these will help Cruse and other organisations learn from these difficult times. These will also help us continue to refine and improve the support we offer.

This research project was carried out in partnership with The ExtraCare Charitable Trust, together with researchers at the University of Bristol and Aston University.  The work was supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, University of Bristol and the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund and Cruse Bereavement Care. The project was part of a much bigger five-year (2017-2021) partnership between Cruse and ExtraCare – The Bereavement Supporter Project – which is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.

Read the full report: Creating Compassionate Communities: Using diaries to capture bereavement support during the Covid-19 pandemic