Grief, Loss And Bereavement

Grief, loss and bereavement

Published: 01/06/2020

Author: Jessica Wild and Susan Ridpath

What are the complexities of grief, loss and bereavement during the current pandemic and in relation to the experiences of those working in social care, as well as in the lives of adults, children and families in receipt of services? In this blog we outline some of the ways we may create connections with others despite physical distancing measures, when experiencing grief and loss.

We begin by offering heartfelt condolences to anyone who has suffered a bereavement due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), or under any circumstance during these challenging times. The pandemic has led to unprecedented losses felt by almost everyone in society. They have generated a collective sadness, as the social structures we typically rely upon have been fundamentally destabilised by the outbreak.

Various and broad ranging, these losses range from lost social connections, to a loss of self, a loss of ‘normality’, a loss of financial, housing or work security (Papa & Maitoza, 2013), or the loss of the freedom to access the spaces which provide daily routine and wellbeing. They also include bereavement; the loss of friends or family members to the virus. In this sense, losses can be cumulative and the emotions and reactions accompanying grief, various. Losses may be actual, symbolic or anticipatory, and they do not always involve death. Many people may experience waves of anxiety and fear in anticipation of bereavement. We might be affected by other people’s reactions, feelings and experiences too. Grief can transport people back to earlier experiences of loss, instability and bereavement and churn those memories and feelings.

Kübler-Ross (2005) details five stages of the grieving process: Denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance. These stages are not fixed, nor do they necessarily occur in a linear way (Kübler-Ross and Kessler, 2005). A person may return repeatedly to a certain stage, or skip stages entirely. Grieving is an ordinary, and important human experience. An understanding of these stages may help to accept our own and other’s emotions and behaviours as we move through personal grieving processes – both as practitioners working in Adults and Children’s Services, but also as individuals coping with loss in our personal lives. Kübler-Ross’s theory is one founded on hope. In the current moment it reminds us that while we are all undoubtedly changed by loss, there is hope in how we move forward to construct an alternative future. Kessler similarly provides four strategies for managing anxiety about loss, in which he reminds us these times of COVID-19 will eventually pass.

It can be difficult to know what to say to someone who is grieving and inter-personal communication takes different forms. At this time of physical isolation, it is necessary to locate alternative ways of establishing contact. While this may feel an additional burden when already coping with grief or loss, it is worth pursuing as it will keep you connected to the people you care for, and who care for you. There is often the belief that online communication is inferior to face-to-face interaction, however in the current moment it can be effective in helping people to feel close to one another, and to maintain existing bonds. Seeking practical and or emotional support – remotely or otherwise – is not a sign of weakness.

‘Rituals’ and markers for grief and bereavement

The pandemic has shaken our sense of predictability and understanding of how the world ‘typically’ operates, including in relation to the private and public rituals we usually engage in, to mark the passing of someone, as well as the rituals typically embarked upon towards the end of life or when someone is unwell. Physical distancing measures implemented to prevent further bereavements mean that many are prevented from being with loved ones at the end of their lives, and the way funerals are conducted has had to change.

As practitioners, it may be useful to reflect on the beliefs of the families you are working with, actively engaging in faith-specific advice that reflects guidance from various faith-communities (see here and here for resources for the Muslim community, guidance for the Jewish community, the Sikh community, the Hindu community, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church). Faith-specific guidance may provide a good basis for reassuring end of life conversations, and help build confidence when promoting the dignity and wishes of the people you support in death.

Bereavement can be very lonely, and we know that talking and being with friends and family can help to manage this process. Across many cultures, people come together to grieve in public rituals to share the experience, support one another, honour faith or belief, and ultimately to help process the grief. In the absence of these rituals, it may be useful to think about alternative ways to forge connections with friends and family, as well as with colleagues. A funeral plays a very important part in accepting the reality of death, so it may be helpful to hold your own memorial for the person who has died, providing an opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one. At a Loss bereavement charity offers a range of other ideas to remember those we have lost, in the absence of more typical ‘rituals’ and markers of death, bereavement and loss.

Supporting children and young people

With illness and death so prominent in mainstream media and everyday conversation, children may be feeling especially anxious at the moment, worried about themselves and others, particularly their grandparents. They may be unsure about how to deal with those feelings and sometimes their reactions may look like anger. When communicating with children about COVID-19, existing good practice for talking to children about death holds true. It may be tempting to shield children from the current reality, and to avoid the truth however bringing anxieties out into the open, and speaking about the possibility of death and dying is an important and ongoing conversation to have with children and young people. In having these conversations, it is important to avoid overloading them, to not make promises, as well as to emphasise the safety measures being taken to increase their safety and that of others. This short film may help children to say goodbye when someone special dies, as well as a recently published illustrated book for children about the coronavirus, which is free to download.

Bereavement in the workplace

Social care has an important role in the delivery of meaningful palliative, end of life and bereavement care and most social workers will encounter people who are experiencing loss, the end of life, or bereavement, during this pandemic. In the current moment of crisis and uncertainty, even as the lockdown eases, supervision for social workers is now more important than ever, as practitioners grapple with bereavement and loss within the dual contexts of their work, and personal lives. Compassion in supervision is crucial, including when conducted remotely. Organisations more broadly also have the potential to foster a real sense of unity and care for their staff during this time, and they are instrumental in creating the conditions for individual worker resilience. Indeed, the crisis may highlight organisational protective factors, or they may foreground weaknesses in organisational culture, as practices change to respond to new challenges. Our recently recorded webinar with Dr Karen Treisman explores these issues at length.

Resources for supporting adults

Resources for supporting children, young people and families

Jessica Wild and Susan Ridpath

Jessica works at Research in Practice with Partners across children, families and adult services and leads on aspects of the annual Delivery Programme. Jessica has previously managed specialist services for women experiencing domestic abuse, as well as homelessness and rough-sleeping. Susan works at Research in Practice as a Research and Development Officer for children and families. Susan is a qualified social worker and supports a number of Partners to embed Research in Practice into their organisations. She also helps to ensure the voice of children and families informs our resources.

References

Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2005). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. Simon and Schuster.

Papa, A., & Maitoza, R. (2013). The role of loss in the experience of grief: The case of job loss. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 18(2), 152–169. https://doi.org/10.1080/15325024.2012.684580