In recognition of how COVID-19 is affecting the death rituals for people in Northern Ireland

Featured article - 27 April 2020
By Dr Denise Turner (London Metropolitan University) and Dr Amanda M L Taylor-Beswick (Queens University Belfast)

Dr Denise Turner and Dr Amanda Taylor-Beswick

We are pleased to have been invited to write this blog, at the request of the Chief Social Worker for Northern Ireland Sean Holland. Sean reached out to us due to observing the ways in which the current global health crisis was affecting longstanding burial and mourning practices in the Northern Ireland context.

Many people from a variety of faiths and cultural heritages will have experienced restrictions on their usual customs, rituals and practices so important in the process of burial and mourning. In Northern Ireland there are many longstanding practices such as visiting the bereaved at home, religious ceremonies, wakes and lifts of the coffin, funeral processions, gatherings at the grave and other traditions that have continued through generations and remain important to this day to many in the community. The paying of respects and the rituals around death are often collective and expressed in common as recognition of a shared loss of the individual.

When a loved one, be they a neighbour, colleague, friend or family member is lost, gathering with others has long been an important way for people to come together to console and to condole, and to pay respect to the deceased and to their family, as well as to commemorate the person in a manner according to their beliefs and values.

Be it through the communal sharing of music, ceremony, prayer, food and even drink, through the shaking of hands or the shedding of tears, the paying of respects and the rituals around death are often collective and expressed in common as recognition of a shared loss of the individual and a shared responsibility to recognise and mourn their loss.

Sean was keen to explore the matter further, in terms of offering a public response and asked that we consider sharing some thoughts due to our respective research interests. For Denise, the complexities of death and dying and for Amanda, the impacts of digitalisation on the social world. Together we want to begin by acknowledging the deaths of our fellow humans across the globe at this time, COVID-19 related or not, particularly given the physical distancing measures in place, that are impacting so acutely on grief expressions.

The customs and rituals which sustain individuals, families and communities in times of grief have become casualties of the virus

On 12 March this year, only a few short weeks ago, the UK Prime Minister, warned the public that ‘many families in Britain will ‘lose loved ones before their time.’ Since then the death toll from COVID-19 has risen remorselessly as people’s family and friends become daily statistics in media and other briefings. In this unparalleled situation, the customs and rituals which routinely sustain individuals, families and communities in times of grief are particularly crucial and yet these too have become casualties of the virus. The highly contagious nature of Covid 19 has led to restrictions on people visiting dying loved ones in hospital resulting in little or no time to say that all important final farewell, or even to process the sudden and unexpected death of someone who weeks before may have been physically fit and healthy.

The collective nature of the pandemic also means that death and dying is confronting groups of people and populations in exceptional ways. In more conventional times, talking about sudden, unexpected deaths has proven difficult in cultures where there may be a reluctance to contemplate these topics. COVID-19, presents us with an opportunity to change this and to learn from each other in the sharing of grief. Perhaps too it will provide a way to permanently erode taboos around dying, where these exist, so that people can be helped to create the meaning which is so crucial to the grieving process.

A complicated time in the world

COVID-19 has also created many challenges and complications for our social world and the burial and grieving processes are no exceptions, for example, placing restrictions on numbers of mourners at funerals. In some cases, this has led to an increase in live streaming, with restricted access to the body, and an absence of the physical proximity and comfort often associated with mourning. An additional issue is the impact on the bereaved of the loss of culturally specific rituals and traditions associated with bereavement. Research evidence demonstrates the necessity for people to make meaning from a death in order to avoid the difficulties associated with complicated or disenfranchised grief. Much of this meaning-making is culturally specific, including social gatherings, often in the form of a wake, to remember the person who has passed. Where people are not able to mourn together in traditional ways the bereavement process may be negatively affected, creating difficulties in adapting to life without the deceased person.

To connect, to reminisce, to remember

What we, and indeed Sean, want to think more about is if or how alternative methods, in particular digital methods, are useful for sharing a loss experience. Whether existing online networks and channels can help families and friends to connect, to reminisce, to remember and to share in the grief experience. What we have become aware of, is that while death notices in local papers continue to be actively used, for some the purchasing of hard copy newspapers has greatly reduced. As a substitute for making a loss known, some people are turning to social media. For example, posting long and detailed eulogies, with accompanying photographs on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where families, friends and friends of friends can offer support and share memories and stories in ways that are felt to be fitting, comforting and respectful. However, there are also people who are not connected to social media and may miss the opportunity to join in and add their farewells. We are interested to think about how they too might be included and supported to make connections with others.

We are seeking to gather experiences and insights that we can share with others

We recognise that there can be no substitute for longstanding death rituals. They are longstanding for a reason because of the comfort they bring, but your experience during this emergency may help others to find ways to find and make connections that will support them during grief and loss. A recent article in The Guardian highlighted a rapid increase in people joining online ‘Death Cafes’ to talk about their deceased loved ones, while many people post simple obituaries to social media, sometimes asking for recommendations of poems, or virtual hugs.

We are seeking to gather experiences, stories, examples and insights that we can share with others, about how people are expressing and sharing their loss amongst their families, friends and the wider community. We hope the blog will enable us to think about this together, and if appropriate to offer a webinar about what we have learned from your experiences.

Useful resources and support

If you have been affected by loss or a bereavement or are supporting other who are grieving you may find is useful to be aware of some of the resources and services provided below.

CRUSE bereavement care provide a range of service and resources to support people to cope with grief and loss. The CRUSE helpline Freephone number is 0808 808 1677 and is open Monday to Friday 9.30am – 5pm with extended hours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings until 8pm or by email at helpline@cruse.org.uk. CRUSE have developed resources about COVID-19 which you can access on the web links below.

The Northern Ireland Social Care Council developed an open learning resource, “Hope, Hints and "How To” - Helping you respond to living and dying issues during COVID-19.

GriefChat is a safe online space where people can share their story, explore their feelings and be supported by a qualified bereavement counsellor. The service is free of charge and is open Monday-Friday, 9am-9pm (UK time) for people who are grieving or bereaved.

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