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News article

Finding solace online after bereavement during the pandemic 

Published: 23 November 2020

2 people with their backs to the camera, one with their head on the other's shoulder

Dr John Wilson is finding powerful new way to support people affected by the tragedy of COVID-19. The Director of Bereavement Services at York St John University’s Counselling and Mental Health Centre (CHMC) and a visiting professor at the University, John has worked with thousands of bereaved people during his career, many while working as a bereavement counsellor at Saint Catherine’s Hospice in Scarborough. In March of this year John set up a mutual support group on social media, for those bereaved by COVID-19.  

He said: “It didn’t cross my mind for a moment, not to help. Bereavement support is what I do, I’ve done it for twenty years. It touched me to read just how desperate people were, how alone they were feeling. Voluntary services were quickly overrun and had long waiting lists. Private bereavement counselling is anywhere between £40 and £90 per session. I calculated that tens of thousands were going to need some form of immediately accessible, free support, and I thought it was worth trying to make use of a private confidential group on social media. In the first lockdown I was shielded as a vulnerable person. Young people in our community were running about after me fetching shopping and prescriptions, so it seemed fair to use my expertise to put something back. 

The true mental health impact of the pandemic is unlikely to be known for some time, but Dr Wilson says some of the main factors are very clear: 

The main pressure has been the sense of isolation during the periods of lockdown, with families who would normally grieve together having to grieve apart. The most traumatic aspect is related to hospital procedures, with people separated from their dying relative by infection precautions. Many feel guilty because they were not able to be there at the end – people have died alone or in the company of strangers. This has included bodies sealed in body bags, wearing the clothes they died in and placed in sealed coffins. No chance to say goodbye in many cases. Restricted funerals, families unable to hug. Not allowed to touch the coffin (infection control, according to the funeral director I spoke to). No hymns as singing increases infection risk. 

The Facebook group set up by John now has around 300 members who value the help and advice he shares in regular postsHe is also offering free group support or one-to-one counselling via Zoom for the most vulnerable members. 

Hannah had been unable to visit her mother for 10 weeks before she passed away in a nursing home. She explained how her experience has been compounded by the pandemic: “COVID robs you of some of the grieving process. Hugs, sharing stories, sharing tears, none of that was allowed except by phone. It isn't the same, not even a bit. Funerals were restricted which for mum was perfect as she didn’t like a fuss, but many were destroyed by it. One of the awful things about losing someone to COVID is the responses from others. When I tell people I lost my dad to cancer I am met with sympathy. When I tell people I lost my mum to COVID, often I am met with questions; was she old? What else did she have wrong with her? Are you sure it was COVID? Then there is the relentless media coverage. There is no escape from the constant reminders. The news coverage, the complaints about the masks. The claims that it is a hoax. It is impossible to really begin the healing process, you think you are doing well and then you hear or read a comment and it all floods back. It makes you angry. Is it that hard to follow the rules? It is a million times harder to say goodbye to your mum via an iPad. Losing a loved one is always awful, it's always a different experience but COVID is unique, unknown and unrelenting." 

Hannah said she’s extremely grateful to have found the group: “Accessing support when services are closed or under immense pressure is either difficult or impossible. This is where the support group has been amazing. Knowing that John has the experience, and the compassion means that I feel confident to post in the group, I am not someone who regularly shares updates  on Facebook as I am quite private. John has posted advice, quotes and articles which have helped explain grief, the grieving process, and ways to get through the days. The members in the group are all strangers but we have a shared experience, and we know that we will all offer support. Nobody tries to take the pain away or make you feel bad for it, we all know it is part of grief and that the pain needs to be experienced, discussed, and worked through. I feel less alone thanks to the group. I feel less lost and less of an inconvenience. I am very glad that I found it. 

‘Mary’ said: “It initially gave me somewhere to express my thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment, knowing I would not be dismissed. As the months have passed, I can feel how I have changed, and rather than getting back to 'the old me', I have grown to become 'the new me'.  I have found John to be genuine, approachable, knowledgeable and kind. He has a relaxed unhurried style in presentations and his passion for the subject shines through everything he does. I will always think of him as, Dr Death, an affectionate nickname he explained was given to him by his wife.” 

Joy said: “I joined this group because it is safe and I didn’t want everything in the public domain following my husband’s death on 26 March. This group has kept me sane during my most difficult times when life has been so dark, it allows me to share my problems and feelings without being judged and people who understand “little steps"  sometimes forward, sometimes back, have stuck with me through this journey. Those two little words keep me going. John always tries to keep us safe and supported with his wise words. He allows us to be ourselves, good or bad. This group may be the only outlet for some people and am lucky to have found it.”

This is just one of several ways that staff from York St John’s Counselling and Mental Health Centre have been supporting people during the pandemic. The Centre provides vital online video and telephone support on a one to one and group basis.  Increasingly they are being contacted by people from throughout the UK as working through digital platforms means services are more inclusive and accessible.  The CMHC services are delivered by qualified and trainee counsellors, psychotherapists, counselling psychologists, coaches, trainers, and group facilitators.  

Professor Lynne Gabriel, Director, York St John University CMHC said: Unprecedented’ is a compelling term for the mental health impact of the pandemic.  I know from our CMHC work that COVID-19 has generated existential anxiety for some, in relation to co-existing and being in the world during a potentially deadly viral pandemic. We have certainly seen an increase in young people stepping forward to access mental health support and our experience of online social support groups for those bereaved during the pandemic clearly indicates some of the features unique to being bereaved by COVID-19. These include traumatic grief, deep distress about not being able to visit relatives in hospital or care settings, limits on attendees at funeral servicesall of which can complicate peoples’ grieving processes.  

If you’ve been affected by issues raised in this article, please contact the CMHC in confidence. 


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