Understanding the impact on bereavement during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic had wide-reaching impacts on grief and funeral practices, leading to a renewed focus on death and bereavement.
Dandelion blowing in the breeze

The COVID-19 pandemic had wide-reaching impacts on grief and funeral practices, leading to a renewed focus on health and wellbeing, social connection, death and bereavement. With funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, NatCen conducted interviews with bereaved people and funeral industry staff to understand how they were impacted by the pandemic. This blog post focuses on some of the key findings relating to the experiences of bereaved people.

People who lost a loved one during the pandemic were impacted in different ways. Variations were experienced according to the restrictions in place – which at times differed between regions – cause of death, circumstances leading up to the death, and personal preferences regarding funerals and commemorations.

A key aspect of the grief journey noted by bereaved people was the lack of physical proximity with a loved one before they died due to pandemic restrictions on travel, social distancing, and reduced care home and hospital visits. This continued after the death, where families were often unable to see their loved one at the Chapel of Rest. For many, this was the most difficult aspect of their experience of bereavement during the COVID-19 pandemic, remaining a source of distress for many months.

Changes to the funeral services available during the pandemic caused further distress. At times, no services were able to take place, while at other points there were significant restrictions in place. This included, but was not limited to, the number of attendees, social distancing enforced at the service, no singing, no carrying/lowering of the coffin, and no wake or gathering to remember or celebrate the person that passed taking place after the service.

The impacts of these changes were felt differently by the individuals we spoke to depending on the time period that the death took place, their religious and cultural beliefs, as well as the personality of the person they lost. While some bereaved people felt unable to sufficiently celebrate the life of their loved one, others preferred having a smaller ceremony as a result of the restrictions. For instance, some felt that having less people present made managing their grief easier or that a quiet service was in keeping with the sensibilities of the person that passed.

A common theme among these experiences was feeling a loss of control. Bereaved people had few choices available to them when planning a funeral service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of their preferences for commemoration, there was little personalisation available. This led some to attach greater meaning to the aspects that were within their control, for example what music was playing during the ceremony or deciding to dance behind the coffin when leaving the funeral when unable to sing.

Bereaved people expressed an array of emotions, including regret and anger, at not having seen the person who died before their death. Those who were able to visit their loved one before they died reported feeling immense gratitude for this time and being able to say goodbye. Bereaved people also expressed sadness and regret where at not being able to give the person who died the funeral that they felt was wished for. How satisfied an individual felt with the service was closely tied to how much autonomy they felt they had in choosing aspects of the service.

These experiences were contextualised within a broader understanding of the COVID-19 restrictions. Bereaved people acknowledged that their experiences could have been very different had the death occurred at a different stage in the pandemic (with more or less prohibitive restrictions in place).

Some of the bereaved people we spoke to felt isolated during the pandemic and experienced worsening mental health while grieving during this time due, in part, to the factors outlined above.

These findings point to long-term considerations and recommendations regarding how best to support bereaved people, including:

  • Overhauling wider support for those that have been bereaved;
  • Improving available support through publicly funded support networks designed in consultation with bereaved people;
  • Capacity building within existing support networks with additional counsellors specialised in bereavement to reduce risk of burden on services;
  • Accessible, clear and comprehensive guidance and support developed and made available for bereaved people to refer to when they need to plan a funeral.

The full findings of this qualitative research conducted by NatCen, and funded by AHRC, can be viewed here on our website.