OPINION: Compassion has never been needed more when dealing with death

Woman looking and packing away memories. Photo:Getty Images/iStockphoto

Many people who have dealt with death over the past year may have felt more isolated - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Norfolk County Council’s member champion for mental health, Cllr Emma Corlett, explains the importance of Dying Matters Awareness week, which runs from May 10 to May 16

The death of a loved one is a difficult experience at any time but those who have been bereaved over the past 14 months have had to face grief in the most difficult of circumstances.

Whether people have been bereaved because of Covid-19 or other causes the pandemic has interrupted the usual ways that we come together to support each other.

Restrictions on visiting at hospitals, hospices and care homes mean that people may not have been able to see their loved-one and say their goodbyes.

The thought of someone dying with someone they don’t know beside them rather than their family has distressed many.

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Restrictions on funeral numbers and the inability to hold a wake or memorial service means that people feel they have not been able to ‘do justice’ to the life of their loved-one.

Plans made a year ago to get together and celebrate the person’s life at the one-year anniversary have also been put on hold as we are still in living with significant restrictions.

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The basic ways that we support each other have also been interrupted; hugs, crying on each other’s shoulder, popping in to make a cup of tea or a meal, going to visit shared favourite places have all been impossible for much of the year.

Isolation has compounded this, with many people bereaved even before the pandemic finding that their social support network stopped suddenly and they were left alone with their distress.

Friends, families and charities have adapted how they support people by moving contact to telephone or online but for many that close physical human contact is what has been missing.

Sudden deaths that already carry a stigma such as through suicide or drug and alcohol use have been pushed even further to margins with those families and friends facing more isolation than ever. A feeling that some lives have passed with barely a whisper, unnoticed.

Those who have experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth have faced such an isolating time, especially during those early months of the pandemic when partners or supporters were not permitted to attend ante-natal appointments. Some have said that working from home has worsened this isolation.

The media narrative of “underlying health problems” has made many feel like there is a hierarchy of death.

That somehow the lives of those with a learning disability or chronic illness or who were old were worth less than those who were younger or fitter.

This has caused untold distress to families. These were valued lives cut short, people who were loved, who had plans for things they wanted to do in their lives.

While the last few months have been difficult for everyone of all ages, bereaved children have been particularly affected by Covid.  

Bereavement leaves a long-lasting impact on children. The loss of usual social support networks around them such as friends, school, clubs and sport has been hard-felt.

Children have been burdened with adult worries. The “don’t kill Granny” narrative was particularly harmful making children feel responsible for the safety of grandparents.

Daily intense media coverage of death numbers has been hard for us all to comprehend, and even harder for children to make sense of and created understandable anxiety and fear especially if a family member tested positive for Covid.

Bereavement support will always be long term, but its complexity at the moment means that it is more important than ever that there is a compassionate response from the whole community. We are going to need unlimited kindness. We need to talk about death and let people know we are ok with listening to how they are feeling.

I’m grateful that this paper has chosen Dying Awareness Matters Week to run a series of articles to open up some of these conversations.

The local community response to Covid showed Norfolk at its best, with neighbours helping and looking out for each other.

This will need to continue as the only certainty we have at the moment is that we will all experience the death of someone we love at some point in our lives and we will need to feel supported by those around us.

For more information see www.dyingmatters.co.org

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