As well as feeling incredibly sad, people bereaved by COVID-19 (coronavirus disease) are also experiencing the shock of a loved one dying suddenly, often after a very short period of illness.
Government restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus (such as social distancing and self-isolation) also mean that many people cannot spend time with their loved one as they are dying, nor spend time with their loved one’s body afterwards, nor hold a normal memorial gathering.
Faced with this particularly challenging type of bereavement, people may experience a range of difficult feelings and symptoms. How you react is normal for you, and understandable in the circumstances. Looking after yourself is the most important thing right now, and will help your recovery. Family and friends can also provide care and support to anyone who is grieving.
This page lists common and normal reactions experienced by people who are bereaved suddenly and in shocking conditions. It also provides advice on how you can help care for yourself at this difficult time.
Common reactions you may experience
- Sadness and shock. As well as being sad, some people may think about events leading up to a death repeatedly, for example seeing a loved one very poorly.
- Disbelief. It may feel as though the person who died is going to walk in the room. When you wake up, you may feel that it can’t be true.
- Numbness and exhaustion. You may feel overwhelmed and unable to move much, concentrate or communicate well. You may feel unable to get on with things without making simple mistakes. Things may feel pointless.
- Frightened or panicky. You may worry about more deaths happening. You may find you get stressed about things that normally you could cope with. You may feel angry, for example that plans are ruined. You may have dreams that scare you.
- A sense of “if only”. You may wish that you had spent more time with the person who has died before they became ill, or told them that you loved them more, or not had arguments with them.
- Physical symptoms. You may feel jumpy, tense, or restless. Some people shake, sweat or cannot speak normally; or have aches and pains such as headaches or stomach upsets; or feel they are choking. You may struggle to sleep or eat as you normally would.
- Loneliness. You may feel no-one understands what you are going through. You may feel lonely, particularly if you are self-isolating, due to infection risk.
Advice on coping with your reactions
Remember your reactions are normal. A sudden death is very challenging for anyone to experience. Caring for yourself and seeking help from friends and family, and other people who care for you, will help you to cope at this time.
- Make sure you have the basics you need to be safe. Food, heat and shelter. Above all, if you feel you are unsafe in any way, for example you do not have food or heating or you feel threatened in any way by someone, call your local health providers or social services and seek help.
- Now is not the time to try to cope on your own. Talking with people you love, or others who can care for you at this time, and sharing what you are going through, can be very comforting. Research has found that people who support each other are less likely to develop debilitating, ongoing conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression.
- If you live with family members or friends, find time to talk with each other, share your feelings and support each other. You may experience very different reactions at different times. Try to be understanding of each other during these different reactions.
- If, due to the need to prevent the spread of coronavirus, you are separated from loved ones, talk with them over the phone, or by digital means including video. Video means you can see someone’s warm face and kind eyes, which many people find helps them to connect and feel supported.
- If you are feeling isolated, but have friends elsewhere, let them know what you are going through, by phone or in other, digital, ways; for example if you talk to friends normally through social media. Social media means many of us can reach out to groups of people who can support us. You may think that friends aren’t close enough, don’t understand, or will be too busy. But friends can be enormously helpful at this time.
- If you are surprised that a friend or family member has not contacted you, you may want to contact them. They may think you do not want their help, but they may want to help, and may have wonderful qualities that enable them to support you over the phone or in other, digital, ways.
- Bereavement and social support helplines can help. Call one you know or use the directory on this website. If lines are busy, leave a message if possible, or call back. They will call you when they can. Even if you have lots of family and friends, it can help to talk to someone outside your normal circles sometimes. If you are feeling isolated, and feel you have no family or friends, it is particularly important to seek help over the phone.
- If you are at home with other people, isolating together in order to stop the spread of coronavirus, it may be hard to be kind to each other all the time. If someone says something that you consider hurtful, remember they probably did not mean to hurt you. They may not know what to say or were dealing with their own, challenging feelings and not thinking about your feelings. It may help to read this page together.
- If you are caring for children, it is important to know that the needs of children are, in many ways, similar to the needs of adults. It is important for children to understand what has happened, and to be given opportunities to talk about it and feel supported. Read our advice on caring for children bereaved through COVID-19 [coming soon].
- You may really miss the experience of being hugged or held, due ot social distancing or self-isolation at home. Try to think of other things that may give you a small sense of comfort. For example, getting warm under a duvet, or cuddling a pet, having a warm bath, or sitting in some sunshine for a few moments.
- If you have physical symptoms at this time, be aware that some of these may be due to your bereavement. However, if you are concerned that you may be poorly for another reason, including COVID-19 (coronavirus disease), contact a medical practitioner immediately.
- If you are confined to your home in order to stop the spread of coronavirus, try to find ways to think of it as a place where you should look after yourself at this important time of grieving. Do things slowly and carefully so you stay safe. For example, when pouring boiling water out a kettle. Try to do just one thing at a time.
- From your home, you may want to do things that help you remember the person who has died. Some people find it helpful to create memory boxes containing things that belonged to their loved one, or frame photographs, or write about their loved one.
- Listen to how your body is feeling. Try to eat a little and often, and eat what you want, when you feel like it. Remember to stay hydrated. Hot, sugary drinks can be helpful. Avoid caffeine and other stimulants such as alcohol or illegal drugs.
- Sleep when you can, even if only for a few hours at a time. Some people may find sleeping tablets useful for a short time but remember that drugs are not a long-term solution to the stress of sudden bereavement. If you feel you need help sleeping, talk to your medical practitioner.
- Delay doing any difficult or dangerous tasks that require full concentration, for example operating motorised machinery. It is easy to make mistakes and injure yourself at a time of high stress. Avoid driving if you can.
- Let out your feelings. Crying can help. Listening to favourite music can help. Some people find it helps to express themselves, for example through writing or painting or doing something that reminds them of the person who has died.
- Physical exercise can help, such as a short walk from your home for a change of scenery, gardening, or gentle movement such as yoga. If you exercise, you may want to carry on exercising, but look after yourself when doing it. Do not over-exercise yourself to the point of exhaustion. Exercising can also release strong feelings.
- If you feel panicky, breathing in and out deeply and slowly for a few minutes can be calming. Sit somewhere peaceful. Breathe fully in, and count to five, breathe fully out, and count to five, and so on, for a minute.
- If you feel bleak and cannot imagine ever being happy again, remember it will not always feel this way. Take each moment as it comes. Your reactions and behaviours at this time are normal and this is a very challenging time; but you will feel better in the future and you can move on to a new life.
Many people find that about a month after a sudden bereavement they start to feel a bit better. They accept the death, and can move forward with their life, even though they feel sad and remember with sorrow what has happened. However, some people continue to experience very challenging thoughts and reactions, and these can be symptoms of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you are experiencing very challenging thoughts and reactions, you may need to seek further help from a medical practitioner including a course of therapy from a qualified counsellor. Many counsellors offer video counselling if you cannot attend a face-to-face meeting..
Grieving takes time and you need to make time for it. Many people find it helpful to know that other people bereaved in sudden and distressing ways have gone on to lead full and happy lives, while still remembering with sorrow what has happened.
Copyright Sudden 2020