I'm a bereavement volunteer and this is how we're helping during lockdown

It is hard to mourn alone, and harder still to suffer the confusion and agony of grief while in isolation.

Death is an unmovable fact of life, while grief is a variable. A myriad of factors influence how we grieve – character, faith, social circumstance, age and now, enforced social isolation.

As a volunteer at Cruse Bereavement Care, it’s my job to support anyone who has gone through the death of a friend or family member and reaches out to us.

Before the lockdown came into effect, I was meeting up with and helping three wonderful widowers process their grief. All had lost wives they had been married to for 30 to 60 years.

Once a week, we would sit down together to share their painful and exquisite memories, and occasionally their regrets. Sometimes we just talked about the absence of that someone special to sit and squabble on the sofa with, or to contentedly not talk to at all.

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All three of my clients were lucky enough – and I choose that word for a reason – to witness the last breath of their spouse. To convey their love right to the very end, and to be able to stay with that familiar, dearly loved body for as long as they felt necessary.

People dealing with grief during this global pandemic aren’t so lucky. They’re forced to attend socially distanced funerals (sometimes via an online stream) and often cannot even visit their loved ones while in hospital.

There is a compelling need by the bereaved to have been there at the end, and our clients often talk to us about the moment of death in great detail. Or, if they weren’t there, they need to work through the guilt of being absent. Being present as someone dies is an intensely personal, even special, moment.

Why that need exists is impossible to say. In any event, everyone’s reason will be different. If you are losing a child, you will naturally want to care and protect them until they take their last breath.

If it is a partner maybe you want a precious last conversation to express your love. With a parent perhaps it is words of gratitude, regret, apology, or even anger that need to be said.

Our clients are often unwilling to share such a moment with others for fear of upsetting them. Cruse is the stranger whom it is possible to talk to.

Bereavement is happening without the warmth of human arms to comfort, no-one to sit with you to make you eat, or just to pass a tissue

So how has lockdown changed things for the already bereaved?

Pre-pandemic, one of my clients had managed a whole meeting without tissues. He’d bravely taken the proactive step of attending our support group, and had just been to his first session. Another had just started dating again and a dinner date was looming. Another, who had often told me that his job was his saviour, has since been furloughed.

In short, their recovery progress has, at best, been halted or at worst, been put back.

It is painfully hard to mourn alone. When my husband died in 1998, I was surrounded by friends and family. I regularly downed a whole bottle of red wine and had to be put to bed by my friends.

My benevolent employers tolerated my erratic attendance at work at strange times, and my mother and best friend quietly took over parental duties.

I distracted myself by making elaborate preparations for the funeral. I wanted a grand celebration of his life and collective mourning, and I got it. Those friends and family stuck rigidly by my side as I lost my sanity and then slowly regained it. Their reward was, eventually, an invitation to my second wedding.

This could not happen now, nor for some time. Will the ping of well intentioned WhatsApp messages, however frequent or beautifully phrased, or short videos of support, have worked in the same way? Will someone cry with you on Zoom? Will it feel the same?

We are currently finding this out the hard way. Bereavement is happening without the warmth of human arms to comfort, no-one to sit with you to make you eat, or just to pass a tissue. Collective celebrations of lives will be replaced by gatherings as small as five, or less. Desires to be buried in a particular place may be impossible.

There is no electronic substitute for the friend who comes round at 3am because you wept incessantly on the phone, or maybe you frightened them with your silence. Some human being prepared to rock you to sleep in your agony of loss.

So what can we do to support the bereaved in these difficult times? Not just the friends and families of the thousands who have died from coronavirus, but also those who were already in the process of mourning? We can reach out in other ways.

Perhaps we could revive the art of the letter. We can pick up the telephone – many of us actually have more time to do so now. We all need to be more imaginative in our support – a DVD or book through the door, a cake on the doorstep.

Here at Cruse we, like so many others, are doing what we can to adapt to the new normal. We cannot presently offer face-to-face support but we are fully trained to provide support over the telephone or on Zoom instead.

While there is no ‘typical’ pattern to bereavement it is often some months after a death when we are contacted. The support of even the most well-intentioned friends and relatives gets patchier after a couple of months. Life calls people back to their own frontlines.

Given the current restrictions on contact it is likely that the help of Cruse may be sought earlier. It is too soon to know.

We are here to support all those struggling with grief at the moment. And we will still be here when all this has passed.

Like the NHS, we will do our utmost to meet any challenge that is presented to us. We understand,  I understand. We must all understand.

Even at two metres apart, there is ample scope for finding ways of expressing empathy and love. 

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