grief in isolation

Grief is, for many people, a lonely and isolating experience. No-one knew your loved one quite like you did; no-one had the exact relationship with them you did; therefore there is no-one who can fully understand your loss. You can be surrounded by people – in fact especially in the early days following a bereavement you often are – and feel very alone.

At the moment, of course, we are all more physically isolated than we usually are. For those who have been bereaved since this crisis began, their loss is likely to be made more complex by a variety of factors, which are the subject of another blog. But even if your loss was some time ago, you may be experiencing heightened feelings of grief right now which are making this period of lockdown hard to bear.

There are various reasons for this. Spending more time alone at home gives us more time to think and, especially if you lived with the person who died, to miss them and long for their company. If any aspect of Covid-19 bears a resemblance to how your loved one passed away, you may find yourself experiencing flashbacks to a traumatic time. The increased references in the media to death and dying may be enough to bring your loss flooding back.

You may find at the moment that some of the coping mechanisms you have been employing up to now are closed to you, whether that’s a workout at the gym or meeting friends for a drink. If you’ve been having therapy, perhaps that’s changed now – though the majority of counsellors are moving their practice online or offering phone support. There’s a peculiar quality to the language we’re using in this crisis that’s leading us to focus on negatives and restriction: lockdown, self-isolation, social distancing (In a recent paper, William G Hoy and Helen B Harris suggest we switch the phrase ‘social distancing’ for the more accurate ‘physical distancing’*).

Above all, what we’re all experiencing at the moment is change. Mary Shelley wrote ‘Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change’. If you’ve lost a significant person in your life, you know what devastation change can wreak. So it might be helpful, right now, to consider the things that haven’t changed, the resources that are available to us (even if in a slightly different form), the lifelines we can still reach:

Communicate: If you’ve got a phone or the internet, you can still connect with loved ones. In fact, you may find they are more keen to talk than previously; perhaps they are less busy in isolation, or feeling lonely themselves. Or why not take the time to use a more traditional form of communication, and send a postcard or a letter?

Get help: At the moment it feels like access to traditional forms of therapy, which may have been a lifeline for you, are closed off. But many counsellors are moving to telephone and webcam provision, and there are online chat-based facilities like GriefChat (www.griefchat.co.uk) which can be a great way to get professional support when you’re feeling vulnerable.

Reflect: It’s important to remember our loved ones and express our grief, and it might be that the place you normally go to do that, eg a cemetery or garden of remembrance, is closed to you now. Consider whether you can create a space in your home for this purpose. Can you form a regular ritual eg lighting a candle and spending time in quiet reflection? Have you got time now to sort through old photographs or letters and revisit some happy times?

Keep well: Keep a routine of eating and sleeping as you normally would. If exercise was part of your wellbeing routine before, you can still do this at home or in the garden, perhaps with the help of the many online resources available, or (at the time of writing) you can still get outdoors for a walk or a run. The benefits of being outside and in nature affect our emotional wellbeing as well as physical.

Create: Trying something new and creative keeps the brain healthy, acts as a distraction, and improves self-esteem. In isolation, you can still: write, paint, draw, cook, garden, decorate, bake, and more.

If you’ve been bereaved, it’s natural to feel fearful of situations of change and to feel particularly alone right now. Focusing on the things that haven’t changed, and the things you can do can be a way to stay grounded and feel more in control.