“Pause for a thoughtful moment, but don’t touch the coffin,” says the celebrant. Touching the coffin isn't even an option for me, as I tune in from afar to my first virtual funeral. I’m not sure if experiencing my first makes me lucky or not, considering there have been more than 126,000 deaths to date in the UK due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. If it does, what a horrifying reality we are living in.
As I watch the screen and follow the order of service via a PDF, I think how the past year has changed what it truly means to grieve. Usually, it’s such an emotionally-charged and human aspect of life. Take funerals, a vital step in the grieving process, a service full of hugs, comfort and tears followed by a wake to celebrate that person. It’s swapping stories. Sometimes laughing. Instead, I sit exactly where I have spent most of the past year working - at my desk in my bedroom, alone.
We know that feelings of loss often extend beyond the funeral. Whether it's at the virtual ceremony itself or in the weeks or months that follow, it is heartbreaking to see loved ones through a screen without being able to hug them and tell them through the tears that everything's going to be okay. This is grieving in the time of Covid. Trying to be there for those who need you most without being physically present at all. Death, in a myriad of ways, unites us. Part of the grieving process is coming together, something we’ve been stripped of over the past year.
As we find ourselves adapting to life constricted by isolation and social restrictions, we are forced to deal with our grief alone and head-on. When you lose someone, it’s isolating enough in itself. It feels like no one else truly understands and it can be hard to communicate - no matter the number of people around you - so it's easier to look inward.
Now, your grief is truly your own grief. This isn’t a choice; grieving alone forces you into dealing with it, whether you like it or not. But, it means you aren’t forced to grieve in the way that other people or society expect you to. Instead, you have the freedom to grieve in your own way without judgement. So what if you want to spend the weekend crying? So what if you don't cry at all? Whether that’s spending the day in bed, going on a long walk or losing yourself in a good book - your space to grieve is precisely that. Yours.
Like many aspects of life, the pandemic has taught us to rethink and question how or why we did things 'before'. It’s the same with grief; instead of coping in the way we might have done previously - loudly, publicly or perhaps even performatively - we are forced to adapt to a quieter, more personal process. We find new ways to share and talk about grief, whether it’s through joining online networks (such as The Grief Network and The Grief Gang) or sharing important, helpful resources on social media. Those platforms can have their fair share of downsides, but they've also connected us in a time when we needed it most.
What have we learnt from funerals and grief over the past year? I liken it to the shift in perception around weddings. Weddings became more about the marriage than the big party and a fancy cake. Smaller, more intimate ceremonies replaced mass gatherings and many newlyweds found themselves pleasantly surprised at how special, or more meaningful their big day felt. It's remarkable how much more relaxed a bride can feel when not worrying about extended family conflicts or a potentially controversial seating plan. Funerals, like many things during the pandemic, have also been stripped back to what truly matters. It’s not about the price of flowers, type of coffin, the number of people present or where the wake is held. It’s about celebrating that person however you can, in a way that feels special and personal to you.
Grieving will always feel lonely and isolating, but the pandemic has encouraged us to proactively communicate. We've learnt to open up about grief and connect with people over heartbreak. It's more important than ever to share your memories of that person, who they were and what they’d make of things.
Life was unimaginably busy before. It’s a wonder we managed to fit it all in, let alone find the space you need to grieve. The pandemic has been undeniably tough, but it’s taught me that there’s beauty in slowing down. Giving yourself that needed space and time is the greatest form of self-care; to process instead of distracting yourself with the mask of everyday life. To allow the sadness, to really feel the pain of grief, is one of the bravest things you can do.
Grief is always there and it knows when to strike. It comes out when you’re at your most vulnerable or when life isn't going to plan. This past year, everything got harder so the weight of grief got heavier. The distractions from everyday life were all but removed completely. This is where grief thrives.
Remember that it’s perfectly okay to not be okay. We're pressured to strive to be happy, to act perfectly and to succeed seamlessly, while not burdening others with our messy, off-putting grief. Just thinking about maintaining all that is exhausting. But ultimately, we can feel happier by feeling sad, something that's taken me a long time to realise.
While we hope never to have to experience life in lockdown again, we should remember what the pandemic taught us. When restrictions finally lift and we're surrounded by people and an endless cycle of plans, we will hug, cry, laugh and grieve together again. But promise to give yourself the space you need. Feel sad, whenever you want, and in whatever way you want. Brighter days are coming.
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