How Has Pandemic Grief Changed the World?

Whether it be the World Wars, The Cuban Missile Crisis or any other major event that changes the course of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic will certainly feature in this unfortunate hall of fame. Many of us will be recounting stories from lockdown to our children and grandchildren about the year that was essentially stolen from us. 

For the most unfortunate, COVID has stolen more than just our freedom; it has taken millions of lives from all corners of the globe. In the UK, March 23rd marked the one year anniversary of the first national lockdown. Memorials occurred, moments of silence were honoured and even the Queen and other public figures came out to speak about the importance of this day. Psychologists and experts have long discussed the impact of such an event on our mental health, but how have our attitudes changed now that we have been in the midst of this so-called ‘pandemic grief’ for a year?

A changed relationship with death

For many people, especially those of a certain age, COVID will be the first time living memory that death has faced us so squarely in the face and on such an incredible scale. It’s difficult to come to terms with precisely how changed we have become in terms of our immunity to grief, but it certainly seems that no matter where we turn, we are reminded of the death toll.

While some may have been able to take this time of sadness and turn it into something meaningful and positive, the same cannot be said for everyone. For every individual making the most out of life following the death of a loved one or a prolonged, isolating lockdown, there are those who are finding it impossible to cope. For these people, the constant exposure to death and sad news has not toughened them up, but rather made them lose any sense of hope for a better future. 

Experts say that the very terrible and specific way we are collectively forced to grieve – alone, at a distance, and often without even a chance to say goodbye – is actually preventing many of us from moving on. This kind of grief is deeper, more disruptive, and, “doesn’t yield to the passage of time.” It was this sentiment that seemed to linger over the moments of silence many of us honoured during the anniversary; what used to be an enthusiastic clap for NHS heroes has become an exhausted silence that waits for the hopeful end that is in sight, despite the countless lives lost. 

With a slow, but hopefully steady, ascent from lockdown, some of those feelings of hopelessness and loneliness will begin to subside and we are able to be with our loved ones again and able to come to terms with what the last year has taken from us. 

Learning to grieve from afar

One of the greatest and perhaps most heartbreaking changes to our lives in the past year is the restriction on group gatherings, most specifically funerals. Restrictions are on track to be lifted during the summer but as it stands, funerals are still limited to up to 30 people. Part of the reason this pandemic grief has struck so hard and for so long, is this inability to say goodbye or even to comfort our loved ones.

While there may be little positivity to be found in these funeral restrictions, and this has contributed to prolonged suffering for many families as well as the funeral industry as a whole, it is also true that perceptions of funerals are also changing. 

First of all, with many of the personalised additions to funerals being stripped back due to health and safety reasons, such as transport or even the choice of an open casket, many people may be considering how vital these services are in the first place. Direct cremations have already increased over the years with funeral costs rising and high profile celebrities opting for these sorts of services over traditional ones. It’s not out of the question that the pandemic may also help to continue this trend for years to come as people move towards simplicity. 

Associated with direct cremations is the idea of prioritising memories over material things. In a way, this is something that we have had to get used to whether we’ve wanted to or not; the conversation becomes less about funerals and more about memorials and the best way to remember and honour our loved ones when it is safe to do so. 

Perhaps the most positive change, however, to the way in which funerals are conducted that may help alleviate the severity of the grief and helplessness many of us feel is the utilisation of technology. Options such as streaming or recording funeral services has simply never been the norm before COVID and many loved ones would have been locked into an ultimatum that if they cannot be physically present at a funeral for whatever reason, then they will be forced to miss it completely. The past year has changed our entire perspective on what it means to be present and technology has in many ways saved or at least helped the mental health of millions; family get togethers on Zoom, birthday parties spent virtually and, of course, funerals. 

It may not be a sufficient substitute for the real thing for most people, but it has now opened the door forever to  a wider range of opportunities that likely would have remained untapped had it not been for this terrible year. 

A shift in priorities 

Funerals are not the only life event that has forced people to think differently about what is important in life. Grief has a strange power over the human spirit. For some, it breaks them into a million pieces, whereas others manage to find a spark of hope in order to carry on. 

There has been a clear global shift regarding our change in priorities from the most insignificant routines to major life changes. For some, that means a change in career or choosing to work remotely full time in order to live a more relaxed and fulfilling life with their families. For others, it means moving in with a partner or deciding on marriage or children where they may have hesitated before. 

The incredible trend of ‘turbo relationships’ has emerged throughout lockdown, with more couples than ever committing to one another after a much shorter period than we would see traditionally. 58% of couples say that they are now convinced they want to be with their partner forever following the pandemic. 

For others, an introduction or re-introduction to religion, spirituality and faith has been their biggest change of 2020. It’s hardly surprising that in times of crisis many people may will turn to religion for a source of comfort, but recent trends have shown that now more than ever, adults under 40 are less and less likely to consider themselves religious – COVID has certainly shown a reverse in this trend, at least for the time being. Religious leaders have from all over the world have reported an increase in attendance at churches, synagogues, mosques and more – a fact that is made especially shocking for the fact that the pandemic has forced us further and further away from public spaces. 

Even if we have not personally lost someone ourselves, it does not mean we have not been touched by the collective grief of experiencing this traumatic event together and mourning the loss of life as it used to be; for some, that is more than enough to open their eyes to how short life really is and to make some important changes or commitments. 

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Grief is as much about looking behind us to learn from the past as it is about attempting to reevaluate our lives and our place in the world in the months and years to come. Even though the type of grief we have all been feeling throughout this year has been unprecedented, at least on this scale for this long, we must be prepared for the road to recovery to look slightly different. 

Whatever the reminder of the pandemic has in store for us, one thing is certain; the road ahead is going to need to be one of reflection, of healing and of finding a way to come to terms with and remember what we lost, remembering that for every beginning, there must always be an end. But by taking proactive steps forward into the new world that is slowly emerging, perhaps we can forge something even better.  

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We are a family-led business offering funeral services in Essex since 1958.

Please contact us at any of our four funeral homes, Harold HillHainaultHarold WoodCollier Row, for any queries, support or advice regarding the funeral planning process.