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Zoom funerals and grief

How to process grief when you’re stuck in lockdown

Stats say nearly half of young people are experiencing loneliness during the pandemic, and with loss and bereavement more likely, we ask some experts how to manage grief right now

Only a few months ago, the idea of attending a funeral over a video conferencing app would’ve felt like something out of an episode of Black Mirror, but now, it’s a reality. Like most of the UK guidelines for coronavirus, the rules surrounding funerals are vague, but mourners are told to keep physical gatherings to a maximum of six people. Even then, those who do attend are asked to wear hazmat suits, which we’re told keep mourners safe from infection – but the reality feels alien and removed. With nearly half of young people aged 18-25 reported to have experienced loneliness during lockdown, managing grief can be particularly challenging.

“I couldn’t recognise anyone’s faces even though I was watching my family,” says Alek*, 25, who digitally attended his uncle’s funeral over Facebook Live last month. His uncle had contracted coronavirus and died shortly after. “In Islam, you need to bury to body as quickly as possible and everyone comes to the funeral. People were going to break the rules and show up to pay their respects, so they livestreamed it.”

“Before coronavirus, it’s something I would’ve found unthinkable, but considering the circumstances, it was comforting,” says Megan*, 24, whose family held a virtual ceremony over FaceTime to commemorate her grandma’s death.  “It could never replace the physical experience though, because when the phone cuts off, you’re alone.” 

“I’m quite a resilient character but a funeral is an integral part of grieving, it’s the last chapter in someone’s life, acknowledging everything they were by gathering as a community, a physical experience of sharing loss.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there’s been over 30,000 recorded coronavirus deaths in the UK, and the numbers are rising every day. There’s the bigger picture, nebulous emotions of panic, fear, and grief that comes with being pummeled with death toll figures every day. And with social distancing measures still in place, as well as restrictions on overseas travel, the simple chance to say goodbye to a loved one in person, or attend their funeral, appears to have vanished overnight. Of course, this can have serious implications on a person’s mental health. This can be particularly difficult for young people, who are more likely to be separated from their loved ones. Whether you’re stuck in a dreary London flatshare or crammed into a busy uni dorm, the experience can feel alienating at the best of times, let alone the worst. 

“There are some things about human experience that can’t be mediated through screen, and sex and death are two examples” – Havi Carel

While apps like Zoom, Houseparty, FaceTime, and Facebook Video certainly provide an alternative to physical gatherings, it’s a sanitised version of grief, mediated through patchy internet connection and a laptop screen. 

“There are some things about human experience that can't be mediated through screen and sex and death are two examples,” says Havi Carel, a professor of philosophy and death at Bristol University. “Something like grief is so visceral, so embodied. There’s something about being with people, hugging, sharing stories. There’s something immediate about grief, so the mediation of this screen makes it really tricky.”

It’s the inability to say goodbye physically that makes processing the death so hard. “The most difficult aspect of grief is facing the reality of the loss, letting yourself know that you can’t not know that the person has died, and for that you need a memory. So either seeing someone before they’ve died and saying goodbye knowing they’re dying, or seeing them when they’ve died,” says therapist Julia Samuel, the author of Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass. “I think people’s grief is in limbo, they feel like they know it in their heads, but they feel lost and they don’t know what to do with it. There’s a split between what they feel and how they feel it because the agencies to help them do that have been removed.”

The most helpful ways of overcoming grief, Samuel suggests, is finding ways of communicating with others.  “Being with others that support you, helps to face the pain of their death,” she explains, adding: “I’d get a memory box or something where they put touchstones to the memory – photographs, letters, images – that gives them time to think of the person who’s died. Sometimes writing them a letter helps.”

But losing someone isn’t the only reason you might feel grief. For many, coronavirus has completely brushed away the routines and rituals that give our lives a sense of structure, and purpose. “I call it a living loss,” says Samuel. “There’s multiple losses – people’s futures that they expected, people’s jobs in some cases, not knowing, the hope of creating structure, no one can create plans, and trust your basic trust that we’re going to be okay,” she explains. “It brings up the same feeling of grief, anger, fury, numbness, confusion, and fear. It’s intangible.”

“People’s grief is in limbo, they feel like they know it in their heads, but they feel lost and they don’t know what to do with it” – Julia Samuel

The best way to overcome this grief is to create a new routine, something that will keep you chugging through each day with a sense of direction. But “keep your skyline short,” warns Samuel. “Focus on today and the next few days but don’t project into the future.” She adds: “When you're feeling powerless, helping others is the best thing you can do. Even if that’s just collecting food for a neighbour, or ringing a friend who you know is feeling low.”

If you are struggling with your mental health, visit youth mental health charity The Mix’s website, where you can find tips on managing coronavirus anxiety, how to help others struggling with mental health, and more