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Adapting Grief Work to the Pandemic

How is the coronavirus crisis changing the experience of bereavement? In what ways might grief work need to evolve? To mark National Grief Awareness Week (December 2-8 2020), end of life researcher and former loss and bereavement therapist Sue Brayne follows Monday’s blog on exploring mortality in the consulting room, with a consideration of the ways in which the pandemic is unsettling the grief process.


In pre-Covid days, working as a grief and loss therapist and trainer, I felt confident in supporting people to process whatever they were experiencing. As I wrote in Monday’s blog, Exploring Mortality with Clients, I am passionate about helping people to acknowledge and accept their mortality. Loss and grief are part of the human condition, and in my own experience of working with many grieving clients, there is a recognisable shape to the grieving process.  

However, I believe the coronavirus pandemic is generating a very different bereavement paradigm.

For the first time in living history many clients have been prevented from gathering at the deathbed of someone they love, creating intense feelings of grief, helplessness and guilt. Some clients have developed traumatic symptoms, thinking of much-loved relatives dying alone on a hospital ward or in intensive care, or of isolated elderly parents or spouses, often with dementia, dying in nursing homes.

This is exacerbated by the fact that clients are unable to be physically supported by family and friends at this crucial time. Telephone calls, zoom calls and FaceTime do not replace those important physical hugs and touches, aggravating feelings of separation, loneliness and isolation.

The pandemic is also affecting how clients can say their goodbyes. For example, clients may not have been able to attend a funeral of someone they love in person due to social distancing rules (it is not unusual for some family members and friends to find out about the death after the funeral because of communication issues). Those arranging funerals often have to drastically alter funeral plans which their relative had requested, while many speak of online funerals as an unsatisfactory way to say their farewells. Covid-19 has also created a backlog in the probate process, which is dragging out an already upsetting task for many of the bereaved, delaying a sense of closure.

The 24 hour-a-day media onslaught about Covid-19 is also creating a new kind of backdrop to the grieving process. Some clients express anger over how the death of someone they love has been turned into a Covid statistic. Others speak of having their own feelings of fear, vulnerability and despair intensified by listening to heart-breaking stories from other people whose lives are being crushed by the impact of Covid.

Apart from having to acclimatise to the challenge of moving our therapy sessions and workshops online, or creating socially distanced face-to-face sessions, as therapists and counsellors we need to consider how to adapt our grief work during these very challenging times.

Bravery in Bereavement Psychologist Jason Spendelow believes that it is essential to help grieving clients create a clear coping plan during the pandemic. I agree with him. Creating a coping plan helps clients to regain a sense of control. This plan could include helping them to acknowledge they are living through unprecedented times, encouraging them to stay connected to family, friends and colleagues in whatever way that works for them, finding a way to process their grief no matter their circumstances, and minimising the amount of time they watch or listen to the news.

I would also include helping clients to use ritual as part of their coping plan. Rituals can be as simple as lighting a candle at home for a person who has died or creating a reflective space to release sorrow and find more peace of mind.

The most important thing is supporting clients to carry out what they feel inspired to do. For example, a client I worked with in pre-Covid days decided to say goodbye to her boyfriend who had been killed in a tragic train accident by creating a wreath of his clothes and placing it (safely) in woodland near the train track where he died. This became a sacred place for her, and where she felt most connected to him. I have also worked with a number of mothers who have miscarried a baby and helped them to form a baby naming ceremony so they could say goodbye.

These clients always knew what they needed to do and how they wanted to do it. Therefore, adapting grief work during the pandemic is also about helping clients to create rituals which are possible to carry out during lockdown, or supporting them to cope until post-Covid, when they can fully enter into their grieving process.

We can also provide support by:

  • Enabling: Helping the client to express their rage at what’s being forced upon them.
  • Exploring: It’s important to explore all the fear, horror, guilt and shame that clients may be holding on to about what might have happened when their relative died alone. It’s often helpful for clients to find out as much as they can about what happened at the time of death. Dealing with the truth, however painful, is easier than dealing with the unknown or what they imagine might have happened.
  • Offering: We can offer to hold ritual space for our clients during a therapy session, even if this is on zoom. Sometimes clients, especially if they are living alone, may want to be witnessed as they say their goodbyes. For example, they may want to read a letter or a poem or share photographs of the person.

Finally, I want to share some observations made to me by Amanda Wilkes, Counsellor and Manager of Help Counselling in Wiltshire, where I am a trustee. She emphasises the way in which Covid is acting as a catalyst for so much grief, either directly or indirectly. Right now, she says, the job of counsellors is to help clients build strong coping strategies in whatever way helps.

But she also talks about delayed grief. “There is going to be a fallout. And we are all going to have to learn to grieve together again – but, actually, that can only be a good thing”.

Our existing bereavement models continue to provide a very loose structure for the grieving process. However, we have now stepped onto a complex emotional rollercoaster, where bereaved clients may not be able to process their grief because of the impact of the pandemic. This could mean that some clients will require bereavement support for years to come.

Wearing Your Mortality with Pride Gives Your Life Significance, a short form digital TEDxFrome talk by Sue Brayne, will be live streamed on Wednesday 16th December. Information about Sue’s talk will be posted here on Monday 14th December on.


Sue Brayne

Sue Brayne originally trained as a nurse. She has an MA in the Rhetoric and Rituals of Death (King Alfreds, Winchester), a second MA in Creative Writing (Oxford Brookes) and a PGCE in adult education. For many years she worked at a therapist, specialising in trauma, end of life issues, bereavement and grief. Led by neuropsychiatrist Dr Peter Fenwick, she was an honorary researcher into a five-year retrospective study on end-of-life experiences and is the author of The D-Word: talking about dying, Nearing the End of Life and Sex, Meaning and the Menopause. Her latest book, Living Fully, Dying Consciously, came out in January 2020. During Covid lockdown she has been running international zoom Death Cafes and training seminars which address our relationship with mortality.

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