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Supporting Bereavement during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Supporting Bereavement during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Introduction

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for all individuals, substantially changing our everyday lives. Unfortunately an inevitable and terrible consequence of the coronavirus outbreak is that there will be many more individuals, families, schools and communities dealing with bereavements. This guidance, curated by Buckinghamshire Council’s educational psychology team, is intended to advise how best to manage bereavement and grief during the COVID-19 pandemic. It covers different situations and emotions bereaved people may have to deal with. This information will be revised and updated as required as the situation develops.

The Additional Challenge: Grieving and Isolation

Being bereaved can be an extremely lonely time. Talking with friends and family can be one of the most helpful ways to cope after someone close to us dies. Therefore the advice is usually to avoid isolating yourself, but the COVID-19 outbreak means that we are in a situation where social distancing and self-isolation are national requirements.

This can make feelings of loneliness and grief more intense. A bereaved family might be isolated together, and although this at times may be a support, at other times tensions and resentments could be magnified making it difficult for them to help each other. It can difficult for parents/carers to keep children and young people occupied during isolation, and thus to deal with their own emotions and fears. The impact of dealing with a bereavement, compounded with feelings of worry about external situations, can mean that feelings of grief are not fully expressed.

Isolation can also make it harder to process grief. At times like this when there is a constant stream of new and distressing information, people can find themselves distracted from dealing with their grief.

Practical concerns and considerations may also come up. The person who died may have been a partner, parent or carer and the bereaved person may be left without practical or emotional support at a time they need it most. Friends and relatives who might otherwise have been able to provide practical support, for example help with meals and shopping, will not be able to fulfill this role.

Helping Yourself

Although you may not be able to see people in person, it is important that physical distancing does not lead to social/emotional separation. You can keep in regular contact with others using the phone, text, or internet if it is available to you.

Look after yourself and get rest. You may find the following helpful:

  • Get some fresh air or sunlight each day - even opening a window can help
  • Do some exercise around the house if you are able
  • Keep to a regular routine of getting up and dressed and eating meals at the usual time, whether you are on your own or part of a family group. 

At times when you have more energy, you might want to find some jobs to do around the house or garden (if you have one). It is normal to move between intense grieving and looking to the future after someone dies, and there may be some things you can achieve even if you cannot go out.

Don’t feel guilty if you are struggling. Reach out to others who might be finding it difficult too, you may be able to help each other.

Seek practical help from friends, family or neighbours

Although other people will not be able to visit you, there may still be tasks with which they can support you. For instance, neighbours may be able to go shopping on your behalf, delivering food and other items whilst respecting social distancing guidelines.

Helping Others

Try to stay in contact with bereaved friends and family even if you cannot visit. Find out if they can talk on the telephone, or over the internet if they have the technology available. Let them talk about how they are feeling and about the person who has died – talking can be one of the most helpful things. Consider sending a letter, card or note to let them know you are thinking of them. 

If you run or attend a regular social group or activity and this has been cancelled, consider keeping in touch with the members using other means, or perhaps even running the group using a video platform such as Skype, Zoom or Houseparty.

If you know someone might struggle practically, offer to help by delivering off supplies and gifts.  You should always follow the latest government guidelines about social contact. 

Support Bereaved Children and Young People at Home

Children and young people will be greatly affected by what is going on around them at this difficult time. Their lives are changing and they will have picked up worries and fears about the virus and the possibility that they or someone they love and depend on may get ill. They may be particularly worried that grandparents, older relatives and family members with health conditions or disabilities might die. They will also pick up on other worries that parents and carers may have about the situation.

For families in isolation, it may mean that activities usually available which help children and young people to switch off, relax and cope with grief are not available. It is not unusual for tempers to fray when families are together for long periods; try to understand this as a normal part of family dynamics – however frustrating it may be at the time.

Talk honestly with children about both facts and emotions. Ask what they know – they may be getting information from friends or social media which is incorrect or distorted.

With a younger child you may need to give information in small chunks. Talking about the situation and about the possibility of death and dying is an ongoing conversation. It is okay to let them know if you don’t know the answers to some of their questions. 

Do not make promises (e.g. “Grandma will be fine”) but reassure them that they are loved and supported. Parents/carers should let them know about any plans for what might happen if one of the family gets ill.

Families need to keep to a routine and help children get some exercise even if they cannot leave the house. Help them keep in contact with friends and relatives over the phone or internet.

Try not to set unrealistic goals about what you can do under exceptional circumstances, especially if you are working at home and caring for young children. If you are at home try to make sure you all get some time apart, and time to relax.  Where possible, let children and young people make some choices about what they are doing, as this may help give them some sense of control over their lives.

Supporting Bereaved Children and Young People in Schools

There may be bereavements experienced by children and young people who continue to attend school during the COVID-19 outbreak. Supporting bereaved pupils will be very stressful for staff who may already be struggling with their own reactions and emotions. Plan for some sort of mutual support, for example in the staffroom at the end of the school day, to give staff an opportunity to share feelings and reactions.

The following guidance may help staff seeking to support bereaved pupils:

  • Use words that children understand and are age appropriate
  • Give the information a bit at a time, allowing them the opportunity for them to ask questions. Older children will want and be able to handle more information.
  • Tell them that you are sorry such an event has occurred and you want to understand and help them
  • Use pictures and storybooks. These are particularly helpful for younger children or children with special needs. Social Stories  can be used for children with communication difficulties
  • Encourage children to ask questions and answer their questions honestly and simply.
  • Accept that some things can’t be ‘made better’
  • Don’t be afraid to show children how you are feeling
  • Tell them that the reactions they are having are normal
  • Pay extra attention and spend extra time with them, be more nurturing and comforting
  • Reassure them that they are safe
  • Do not take their anger or other feelings personally. Help them to understand the relationship between anger and trauma. Help them find safe ways to express their feelings, for example by drawing, talking or exercising
  • Do not be surprised by changes in behaviour or personality. They will return to their usual selves in time
  • If they are feeling guilt or shame, emphasise that they did not choose for this to happen and that they are not to blame. Even if they were angry with the person who died, or had been mean to them, this did not make it happen
  • As well as advising the child about appropriate use of social media, monitor their use, particularly during this vulnerable time.

Activities to support children experiencing bereavement

  • Looking at photos
  • A memory display using photos and paper flowers
  • A balloon release
  • Stories about loss
  • DVDs and videos
  • Lighting a candle
  • Saying a prayer or another appropriate religious/spiritual act
  • Listening to the pupils and checking their understanding

Children with special educational needs may need extra help with their understanding and ways to express feelings. The educational psychology team can provide specific advice and guidance around this; contact eps@buckinghamshire.gov.uk for support.

Reintegration of a bereaved child into school

  • Talk to the family and child, if age appropriate, to see what they would like to happen when they return to school.
  • Talk to the child’s current peers attending school about how people are affected by grief and encourage them to share their own feelings. Ask about how they have coped with bereavement in their own lives and what has helped.
  • Discuss how difficult it may be for the bereaved pupil to come back to school. Ask how they would like to be treated if they were returning to school after a death. Acknowledge that people will have different preferences as to how they are treated. Some people may want to discuss what has happened, while others may want to be left alone. In general bereaved students say that they would like others to treat them as before rather than being ‘over-nice’ to them. However, it is a delicate balance as typically they also do not want people to behave as if nothing has happened at all.
  • When they return, acknowledge their loss “I’m sorry that (name of deceased) died. I know that you are sad. It is ok to cry”.
  • Allow them access to a ‘quiet room’ where they can go to be alone; agree a way for them to communicate this need (e.g. signal or exit card).

Useful Websites

Bereavement Support for Children

Bereavement Information for Schools

General COVID-19 Information and Advice

A wide range of resources relating to supporting children, young people and parents can be found on the Buckinghamshire Family Information Service website:

https://www.bucksfamilyinfo.org/kb5/buckinghamshire/fsd/advice.page?id=NrEa25_VxtA

Information specifically for Buckinghamshire schools can be found via SchoolsWeb:

https://schoolsweb.buckscc.gov.uk/covid-19-corona-virus-latest-advice/

Both of these sites are being regularly updated with the latest information.

If you would like any further support or guidance please contact:

Dr Timothy Jones, Principal Educational Psychologist

tim.jones@buckinghamshire.gov.uk / 07971 107 020

 

 

With gratitude and acknowledgement to the Lewisham Educational Psychology Team for their assistance in curating this guidance.

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