Emily Mee lost her father in January, before coronavirus had reached the UK and before goodbyes involved social distancing, video calls and the added worries of a global pandemic.
She writes that anyone who has lost someone close to them will know that dealing with bereavement is quite possibly the hardest thing you will ever have to overcome.
We spent his last few days around his bedside, hugging him and telling him how much we loved him. I realise now how lucky we were to have had that time.
Grief is an unpredictable thing and even more so when the rest of the world also feels so unpredictable.
I’ve often thought about how other people are dealing with bereavement at this time, especially those who have lost loved ones in the midst of the pandemic.
As part of Dying Matters Week, I decided to speak to Alison Robinson, who is Macmillan Cancer Support’s lead on bereavement services during COVID-19.
I wanted to find out how things have changed for people coping with grief during this time and what coping mechanisms can help.
Ms Robinson explained that one of the biggest barriers currently is that many people are unable to visit their loved ones in hospital – and even if they are, there are still restrictions in place.
“During the outbreak of COVID, we’ve seen complete restrictions on our hospitals and nursing homes where they’ve been closed to visitors and there’s been some visiting of patients that are at end of life,” she said.
“But that even has been very restricted as well, with everyone having to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) and also only staying for a very short period of time, as in 15 minutes.
“That PPE almost acts as a barrier – we’ve got face masks on, we’ve got visors in some cases.
“When you talk to a family, or you talk to a patient about choices and wishes at end of life, your own body language helps with communication.”
The restrictions mean more conversations between families and nurses are having to be had over the phone – and it’s hard to hold difficult conversations without being able to see anyone face-to-face.
Social distancing rules also mean that funerals have had to change drastically, with only a few people allowed to attend and extremely vulnerable shielded people having to miss out.
“The support that you would ordinarily get from family and friends at a funeral, when it’s a celebration of someone’s life, that isn’t there although the services are still going ahead,” Ms Robinson said.
“Then family members are often having to go straight home and, in some cases, sit on their own.”
Ms Robinson pointed out this could mean some people have a delayed reaction to a death, because they did not have the chance to say goodbye in the way they wanted to.
But even without these circumstances, everyone will have a different reaction to loss.
It took me a while to realise that my own grief wasn’t the “wrong” way to grieve just because it was different to other people’s.
“I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way to react and people just need to do what’s right for them at the time,” Ms Robinson said.
“I think some people find it really helpful to reach out and talk to someone about their feelings, whether that’s family members or a friend or a stranger through a counselling website.
“But other people wish to deal with their loss in private – and that’s the same whether we’re in the midst of a global pandemic or not.”
Emotions during this time can range from sadness to anger, guilt, and loss of concentration or motivation, but they can change all the time.
At one point, I found I was getting dates and times mixed up and forgetting things I normally wouldn’t. It wasn’t until a family member pointed it out that I realised it must have been down to my grief.
But some people might only experience a few of these feelings, and for others it might take days, weeks, months or even years after their loss.
So how can we help others dealing with grief – whether it is a partner, or a friend, or even a colleague?
Ms Robinson says it’s important not to assume that people will want advice from you.
In some cases, she said, “they just want you to listen to their story, their memories, their tales, their important moments”.
You might not need to say anything, but you do need to be patient.
“Your friend might be behaving in a completely different way to how you’re used to seeing them, but grief can do different things to different people,” Ms Robinson said.
Still, there’s something different about dealing with loss during a pandemic.
At the time I lost my dad, it felt like everything had imploded in my world while the rest of the world carried on as normal. But now…
It can be hard to say goodbye in the way you want to at this time, but we are having to find ways to adapt.
I’ve thought a lot about how families are missing out on the funerals they may have wanted, and the celebration of life that often involves memories, tears and possibly even some laughter with loved ones.
Ms Robinson told me that a friend of hers who lost her mother had held a service just with her sister, brother and the chaplain.
They had sat and talked together and shared memories and somehow – despite everything – it had actually felt “right”.
“I appreciate that won’t be the same for everyone,” Ms Robinson added. And of course it won’t feel right for many.
She told me about how Macmillan nurses have been organising video calls with families so they can see their loved ones in intensive care units.
And how they have given out knitted hearts to both family members and patients so they can still feel connected.
It’s not the same – but it’s something.
Ms Robinson mused: “Perhaps that’s what it is about – finding that connection that is still there.”
I couldn’t help but agree.