Just over a year ago, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic it was clear that we would be facing unprecedented times. People were going to have to cope with bereavement without many of their usual ways of connecting with friends, family and community.
We knew it would be really important to try and capture the experiences of both bereaved people and the volunteers who support them during this challenging and uncertain time. We wanted to find out how communities would cope with the changing experiences of grief, and we were keen to learn as much as we could about what would help people during the pandemic. So we started a research project to capture people’s experience of bereavement support during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Using diaries to understand bereavement
We decided to ask some of our volunteers to keep diaries, to help us better understand the impact of the Covid-19 restrictions in relation to bereavement and 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 to clients across the UK, or Volunteer Bereavement Supporters offering peer support to fellow residents within 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. Besides providing us with ideas and evidence of how to support people in difficult and changing times, I think it provides a fascinating snapshot into the daily lives of people working to support others during extraordinary circumstances.
Some key themes from the bereavement journals
1. People found new ways of grieving and remembering together
One challenge that many people have had to face during the pandemic is the absence of normal grieving and remembrance practices. Whilst the restrictions meant bereaved people could not always come together at a funeral, there have been some alternative 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, such as residents gathering on their apartment balconies to sing songs and hear prayers and 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 was not an opportunity to collectively grieve and acknowledge someone’s death, then 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)
2. People had mixed feelings about grieving during lockdown
“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 bereaved people were finding bereavement somewhat easier to manage during the pandemic because they felt liberated from the social pressure to appear ‘normal’ and OK. It had allowed them to privately grieve, withdraw and feel sad.
During lockdown some bereaved people reported that their grief was easier to bear because nobody was enjoying life, at least not visibly or openly, and 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, and for some this has been made more challenging by the isolation and 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)
3. People valued the changing support from Cruse
We learnt that bereaved people who received support from Cruse during lockdown valued the emotional support more than ever, when other support networks and activities for coping with a bereavement were suspended or not available.
“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 and switched their face-to-face services to telephone support. Some clients who accessed telephone support actually found this suited their needs better than face to face support.
“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)
Learning from the project
I’d like to thank all the volunteers who so generously and honestly shared their thoughts and feelings, helping us to capture this little piece of history in the making.
We’re really pleased with the way that the diaries have given us an insight into how people support each other through bereavement – we feel what we’ve seen is deeper and subtler than we could have discovered from other methods like surveys or feedback forms. We’ve made a series of recommendations based on the findings which we hope will help Cruse and other organisations learn from these difficult times and 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.