Moving beyond Freedom Day on July 19 will be a step forwards but for those grieving, the pandemic has created its own particular set of challenges. We take a look at opportunities to heal in day-to-day settings at home, within a therapy setting and what can be done at the community level as a society.
n recent decades, we have seen a broadening of attention from a traditional focus on emotional consequences, to one that also considers cognitive, social, cultural and spiritual dimensions to the study of grief. There is also a growing awareness that losses can provide the possibility of life-enhancing "post traumatic growth" as the lessons of loss and resilience are integrated."(Christopher Hall, Director of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, in an article
that sums up well the various developments in grief and related therapies.)
So how can those grieving move forward against the backdrop of this pandemic?
Models for coping
Susan Cappaert, who has spent the better part of the last decade and a half working in a hospice and with bereaved people says that “The grief process is not a straight line, as you can imagine, and at times it’s like a rollercoaster, a wave of emotions, so I work through those waves with the client."
She uses integrative therapy for grief since it "is well suited because we don't work with a fixed ‘theory’ about how the therapy will work or what we will do. It helps me be more adaptable to working with the client, providing support they need at the time, rather than trying to get a theory to work.”
Alongside her private practice, Joyce Howitt has also volunteered for almost two decades at bereavement charity, Cruse where she is a supervisor to other therapists. She is an integrative and psychodynamic therapist.
"I find quite often when clients are looking for a way forward we can use a dual process where we work through the emotions of the bereavement while helping them to find a life for themselves on their own," Joyce Howitt says.
In more normal times, our usual routines can provide some continuum and some other place to go to be away from grief - they can be the conduit for re-entry to life after loss. Those grieving a loss, over which they had no control, get to exercise some control again in a reliably familiar setting. It stands as a bulwark against the turmoil of grief. But right now nothing is usual or routine, and there is no continuum save the "new normal" - which is far from normal and so there is no easy separation for learning coping methods.
However, now as we emerge from lockdown and our lives return incrementally to normal, various models for coping can begin to be integrated - these include the Dual Coping Model (Stroebe and Schut 1999), the Task Based Model (Worden 2008), Resilience theories developed by Bannon
, and ideas of Post Traumatic Growth (PTG), albeit with the proviso that they need to adapt these to fit current circumstances.
What can we do now?
But in the short term, there are things we can consciously do in the privacy of our own company and our own homes to address some of the grief and suffering.
Conscious actions and personal rituals
Private rituals which are expressed in a way that public outings of mourning are not proves more cathartic and ultimately more productive for moving through grief, according to well-received research
in the last decade. It contrasted the role of public ritual in mourning with private and more personal or idiosyncratic rituals, such as the woman who continued to wash her husband's car on the same days as he used to do, long after he died even though she no longer drove - everyday motions that carry particular meaning and connection to the loved one.
Many who have lost someone they have mourned no doubt have a story of what matters to them, which memories are the most precious, and how they choose to remember that person.
Is this then a silver lining to a year when there is no access to the more public mourning rituals? That the solace we can find in doing things in private that bind us in memory to those who have departed is more helpful now than ever.
Susan Cappaert and Joyce Howitt recommend finding creative ways to do this even when rituals that might otherwise involve travel, easier access and social interaction were off the cards?
Memory boxes and journalling allow for commemoration. Physical and tangible belongings take on added importance in the absence of proper farewells. We also live in an age where the experience of our life is recorded and digitised but perhaps not catalogued nor made tactile - compiling an album which can be physically held and shared can be a more tangible expression of that life's record. Story telling is a powerful thing and well documented as a tool in therapy.
This commemorative approach ties in well with the movement away from certain counselling or therapy models around "letting go" of the deceased to instead finding an "ongoing" connection with that loved one, as pointed to in various research
Focus on self
The importance of experiencing nature or making time for mindful exercise, including the slower forms of walking or gardening are emphasised by both Joyce Howitt and Susan Cappaert - physical activity that is in the moment and which may allow some space away from other emotions.
Susan Cappaert also talks about the need for some quiet "me" time which offers both a meditative quality and also a sense of progress in making or finishing something - painting, photography, knitting. Hobbies old and new.
But equally important in this scenario are the routines of basic self-care; they are integral to coping.
It is important to stay the distance with this. Joyce Howitt sums up, “It's vital that those, especially those on their own at this time, are taking steps to look after themselves to help them avoid developing low moods,” she says.
Over the last year and more, where physical social interaction was rendered virtually null, it has been replaced by the "virtual" access of Zoom and other internet enabled communications. While zooming en-masse as a social catch-up or office-substitute has drawn its share of frustration and criticism, it's good to remember that the memes and lampooning in Zoom's wake (eg Zoom bingo scorecards) are testament to various human tendencies - inclination towards community and tendency to find humour in the foibles and follies of our communities, tendency to adapt quickly across the generations.
The only drawback here is that it can be harder for these new virtual communities to know how to support the bereaved - the setting is usually work-related, by and large functional and meeting oriented. As a setting that is unfamiliar in the context of grief, it may be less appealing as a place into which someone brings their own grief.
With the likely continued WFH - working from home - after Freedom Day on 19th July, the importance of how work places and office cultures adapt to engaging with and helping their people with grief and loss cannot be underestimated.
Howitt emphasises the importance of telephone calls and the human voice at the other end of the line. She highlights the initiative that friends and family should take here.
"Think instead of what you might do for someone who is bereaved than leave it to them to ask a favour of you."
That is even more imperative in times of lockdown when isolation can breed a tendency to become reclusive. And Resilience theory, which is often associated with an exclusive focus on someone's intrinsic nature as a key factor, in fact emphasises the equal importance of social support and bonding in finding that resilience.
Although we have been distanced from other people, we should not forget the value of our four legged friends too - “Pets can be such a great source of comfort in these times,” says Susan Cappaert.
Therapist as middle ground
Although family and friends are traditionally the closest networks for support, it’s common for support to fall away after a while, and even more likely in lockdown and as we emerge from it too, where people wish to make a clear break from what has gone before. And a person who is grieving might have uncomfortable or anti- social feelings about their bereavement so they may not choose to talk to those around them.
Seeing a therapist gives someone a regular window each week to talk about those feelings, and work through their grief without judgement and with support.
Susan Cappaert also points out that someone who has been through trauma might find they need to go over and over the event of the death itself before they begin the grieving process – something with which many family and friends may struggle to deal. "If the bereaved wants to go over the events with others, obviously that's putting that pain back into the room and others may not want to hear it.
As a therapist, I can sit with the bereaved and I can hear what they want to express as often as they want to tell it."
Bereavement support in the immediate aftermath of loss
The national bereavement study referred to earlier has also made some interim recommendations which focus on areas of priority in what might better shape the response to this pandemic: improved communications, more flexible support bubble arrangements and a focus on those regions and NHS trusts where bereavement support is hampered by long waiting lists.
Another related study also acknowledged what the media reports attested to week in and week out during the height of the pandemic, that bereavement care is further impacted by the changed in hospital settings. Healthcare workers are under extreme stress in having to adapt to provide palliative care as well as primary clinical care with little training, less time and least energy, not to mention the disproportionate rate of bereavement withint their own work force because of their front-line exposure to the virus.
As reiterated in much research
in this pandemic about Health Care Workers (HCW), "Special attention must be paid to HCW trainees, who may have not yet developed personal or professional grief management strategies and are coming into healthcare practice during a time of great disruption to both teaching and clinical care."
Future consideration needs to be given to tooling up healthcare workers with sufficient education around this for the benefit of the bereaved and for themselves on the front line.
The nexus between Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD), PTSD and therapy
"Notably, a key understanding about grief is that the quality of dying can predict complicated grief [also known as Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD)]. The end-of-life experiences and the relationships of the person who died and their loved ones (what happens before
death and as people face the end-of-life) appear to be as important or more important to the quality and outcome of grief than what is done after
the death to console the bereaved."
Given the likely surge in PGD, therapists will be key to helping here. PGD should not be left untreated - it is well documented that it can lead to physical and cognitive impairment, and to more severe issues such as mental disorders including substance use and increased suicide risk, reduced quality of life, and premature mortality. (Research about the impact of PGD across the board is referenced in a publication
that looked at the risk for older adults in this pandemic.)
It's also important to distinguish PGD from other ways that grief can manifest for example PTSD and depression.
This is why a trained therapist who specialises in grief in its myriad forms can be of real help. It allows for differentiation of treatment and response.
As one of the key researchers and academics in this field, Dr Holly Prigerson said
about sufferers: “They’re getting treated for depression, and no one understands why they’re not able to move on."
Different types of therapy and treatment
Recognised modes of treatment specifically addressing PGD is in its infancy relatively speaking although as Joyce Howitt pointed out that as a condition, it has been more prevalent than people might imagine. Targeted approaches can vary from a broad flexible interpersonal psychotherapy like that practised by Susan Cappaert and Joyce Howitt to more targeted and defined models of intervention such as the Complicated Grief Treatment
(CGT) and screening tools such as the Bereavement Challenges Scale
Therapists will often use a combination of therapies and tools that align better with the individual's needs; some are specifically trained in therapies such as CBT and EMDR.
CGT includes elements drawn from both interpersonal pyschotherapy (IPT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Although CGT can be flexibly applied in clinical practice, the manualized form tested in research studies
consists of 16 sessions, each approximately 45 to 60 minutes long. The Bereavement Challenges Scale developed by Dr Holly Prigerson, a leading researcher in this field, is a tool for measuring the challenges facing someone who is bereaved using a 35 item scaled index to assess this.
Treatment with various drugs (eg SSRIs) can be helpful but only to the extent that they are treating associated depression rather than PGD per se. (Drugs as an adjunct to therapy has been studied
previously against the backdrop of a reported
deficit of research in this area.)
Some combine treatments with trauma therapy models such as Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), which, as the UK body explains
,"aims to help the brain “unstick” and reprocess
the memory properly so that it is no longer so intense. It also helps to desensitise
the person to the emotional impact of the memory."
Words are hard to find
The intensity of memories that flow from this pandemic are not just relevant to EMDR. A recent study
that looked at thoughts, feeling and behaviour during disaster considered the “indescribability” of certain traumatic experience. This is an important factor in its own right as preventing people from taking the initial steps in moving forward. Talk therapy can be difficult in this context - emphasising again that imagery, drawings, body movement can and should be used by therapists in supporting someone so affected.
And it also points to the risk that the intensity of such feelings and memories are not given voice because of the weight of the hurdle in expressing it to others; it then goes unnoticed by others, and remains unresolved and buried for the the person so grieving.These risks have also been studied in other psychological work on dissociation. A grief therapist should be experienced in noticing such risks and exploring the grief experience to facilitate "opening up" in a supported framework.
Community help for grief
point out that a diagnosis of PGD can "pose the risk that grief becomes simply the province of specialists, rather than the responsibility of caring communities." This leads us to the matter of community and its key role in the healing process. Joyce Howitt says that lockdown has stopped vital therapeutic work of grieving groups and community initiatives - it has changed the scope for organisations such as Cruse. Although some of these have moved online, information around this and access can still be difficult.
So what else can we do as a community? What have others done before?
Collective Trauma - what can we learn from the past?
The devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the Boxing Day Tsunami are among collective trauma events that have taught us much
about how to frame community responses to bereavement and grief.
Reviews of all research to date on collective trauma could not be more timely. More needs to be written and spoken about the impact of this last year, and how to anticipate a properly supportive response at a national policy level. But research about other collective trauma events shows that certain factors are key and they are extracted below.
And although Resilience theory continues to be debated, a key outcome of research here is that some social groups are more vulnerable to the harmful impact of collective traumatic events than others, which then impacts their ability to be resilient.
There is of course a defining difference to the source of collective trauma in these studies - that is, that the pandemic is not time limited or an "event" - it is ongoing and changing course. This creates a limbo-land which makes for a sort of delayed resolution to the "event" itself.
Making sense and reframing our grief
There is no comparable or recent frame of reference for this global lockdown and the loss of 2019 - 2021 although the spectre of the Spanish influenza of a hundred years ago or so looms large. A recent publication
that draws on a body of research attests to the importance of ascribing meaning to death or loss, in terms of 'making sense' of it, in moving forward. This is as relevant for one who is in mourning as it is for society as a whole.
In a world that is now dominated by 24 hour access to information across a saturated but also fragmented media landscape, from the traditional outlets familiar to the older generation to the recent rise of social media favoured by millennials, we still await the sense or the story that our society through the media will make of this pandemic and its great loss. When will the time come to take stock, and what legacies for change and reflection will come from this as a society?
We remember - commemoration as a society
For Mick Todd’s elderly mother, the very thought of shielding in lockdown was too much to bear. “I can’t go on like this until Christmas,” she told her son in the days before her death last April.
With a hint of Yorkshire humour, he says today: “She is out of pain now. She may have tried to get away from my dad and we can smile about that. I didn’t think it at the time, but now I see it [their passing] as a blessing for them both.”
Todd has since signed his Pontefract leisure club up as a Covid vaccination centre - catering to up to 400 patients daily - which keeps both his mind and body active.
He hopes one day in the future to be able to fully celebrate his family members’ lives. Charity leaders hoped that 23 March 2021, which was the anniversary of the first day of lockdown, would become in the future a national day of remembrance for all lives lost during this pandemic.
In the fog of loss and lockdown, dates for remembrance or milestones such as Freedom Day can stand out on an individual level as a point to allow those people, still waiting or in a kind of stasis, to take stock and for permission to grieve. At a national level, it can stand for the end of one cycle and the beginning of another - time for reflection and renewal; in the future it can represent our commemoration of those lives lost and a collective moment to mark the universal suffering in all its forms that came with this pandemic and our resilience as a society.