How COVID-19 is changing the process of grief

Paul Drury-Bradey

Our shared traditions of funerals have stood the test of time for generations. But like so many things we hold dear, they are changing. Coronavirus is an accelerant for this rapid shift in the way we think about death. But are these changes really here to stay? 

Alongside the deep sadness of the pandemic and the tragedy of so many people losing their lives, enormous social changes have been taking place. And in a pandemic situation, the way we mourn and understand grief has seen one of those biggest and most dramatic shifts.

With the highly infectious nature of coronavirus, families are struggling to say goodbyes to their loved ones in hospitals. Social distancing guidelines mean funerals are so much smaller than they used to be—limiting condolences from circles of friends and extended families. Sadly, it means more and more people are grieving alone. The impact of this on our mental health and shared social connections has not been measured.

But there are researchers trying to better understand these changes to death. Professor Douglas Davies from Durham University’s Theology and Religion department explained coronavirus means as a society we are becoming more deeply aware of dying.

He said: “One of the ideas that has emerged in recent years is that of disenfranchised grief. The idea is that people haven’t been able to mourn those they’ve lost, a removal from being able to mourn and express grief in their normal way—the pandemic is certainly increasing this in a practical and emotional sense.”

Lots of changes to the funeral industry in 2020 were in fact already happening. But what the industry has noticed is a quicker pace of change, forced by the unique circumstances this pandemic has forced on pretty much all of us.

Direct cremation is one such trend: this involves bodies being taken directly from hospitals to a place where they will be cremated without a family member being present all before the cremated remains are returned to the family.

“Direct cremation was a tiny percentage of British deaths before coronavirus, but it is now rapidly increasing,” Douglas explained. “And I think it means families will want a more shared and public celebration of someone’s life after the event instead. It’s a way of pulling these trends around people living apart and wanting to see funerals as a celebration of life instead of a sadness about passing on.”

Thinking about how we could remember these lives, Douglas predicts a series of “boomerang” events. Perhaps in Great Britain’s traditional memorial month in November, or perhaps in 2021 when families and friends will be able to look back and remember the people we lost during the pandemic.

Of course, the digital space and technology is also changing the way we mourn. Social media and dedicated websites allow people to post messages of condolence and also share stories and memories about the dead. This can make death feel more international, and more inclusive for long-forgotten friends and extended family.

Technology has also opened up ways for live-stream funerals, using websites like Zoom to be able to watch funerals and memorial events from around the world. This type of memory-sharing used to be the preserve of socially powerful people like politicians and celebrities. But the changes we’re living through in 2020 mean these memorial events are now open to everyone. Coronavirus again acting as a catalyst to make things happen more quickly. And perhaps quicker than we would like?

Douglas said: “Coronavirus has brought about something quite new for Britain: a deep personal grief, quite sudden deaths, and socially distanced deaths, and deeply personal moments somehow being widely shared on a public stage. I do think coronavirus is changing the way we think about dying.”

There are groundbreaking ideas that are gaining more interest during the pandemic too. A website called HereAfter has launched; using artificial intelligence and allowing people to record, save and share their life stories. This extraordinary idea will allow living people to have a conversation with the dead through an artificially intelligent Amazon Alexa style interface. A digital voice of a loved one from beyond the grave.

James Vlahos, the HereAfter CEO said: “In theory, this application is almost limitless. Because there’s an almost universal hope to keep someone’s memories and personality around after they’ve died. We’re just trying to capture these little slices of the present, and saving them for the future—connecting generations.”

Another company seeing a surge of interest is And Vinylly. This incredible idea also captures people’s life stories in audio form. Then their ashes are used at a special vinyl press to create a real record of that person’s life—bringing stories and a physical reminder of that person together as one. These once unimaginable ideas are now becoming part of death. But while the technology is new, the desire to leave a legacy is timeless.

“Narrative storytelling is just a way of practising memory. When it comes to death, there’s nothing really new. We’re just using technology and new media for old cultural practises,” explained Douglas from Durham University. “But there is something intensely modern and new about all of this. The rise of cameras, video technology and the ability to record and make public almost any aspect of your life—it has really shifted thinking about immortality. The way we consider death and dying has been changed by so many parts of modern society that we simply take for granted, such as digital, social media and many people being so inter-connected.”

But how is this technological change shaping a very human change in how our brains are wired too? Some research suggests that digital memories always link us back to specific points in our lives. Should we do more to allow people to make their own memories and decisions on how to remember their loved ones? Death used to be something that we didn’t want to think about. But now we can’t escape it.

The technology and creative ideas might come and go but some things are universal. A yearning for community, human connections and a way of sharing stories and experiences together. That’s why this research during these unprecedented times is so important, helping us to make sense of these rapid changes.

Perhaps we can call play our part too. Today, the value of supporting the bereaved has never been more important. Some things just don’t change. It takes courage to acknowledge and express our grief, but that’s the only way we can build collective compassion.

Paul Drury-Bradey can be found tweeting at @pauldrurybradey


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