UK's 2.6m Covid bereaved suffer heightened grief, finds study

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: PA</span>
Photograph: PA

Covid grief is worse than other types of grief, according to the first findings of UK-wide research into how people have coped with the deaths of loved ones during the pandemic.

Family and friends bereaved by coronavirus experienced “greatly increased negative experiences” and showed higher grief and support needs compared to people suffering the loss of loved ones from other illnesses, including cancer, researchers at Cardiff and Bristol universities found.

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Examining more than 500 deaths since mid-March, around half from Covid, they discovered that Covid-bereaved people were less likely to have been able to say goodbye to loved ones, less likely to have visited prior to death and less likely to have had contact with friends and family after their bereavement.

There have been more than 70,000 excess deaths in the UK during the pandemic, adding to an estimated 450,000 which would have normally occurred over the nine months, the report’s authors said. On the basis that a typical person dying leaves five people bereaved, they estimate 2.6 million people have been bereaved in the UK “at a time of profound disruption to our social support networks as well as intense pressure on health and social care”.

The study, which will continue gathering evidence until the end of December, found 70% of bereaved people whose loved one died of a confirmed Covid-19 infection had limited contact with them in the last days of life, 85% were unable to say goodbye as they would have liked and 75% experienced social isolation and loneliness. By contrast 43% of people whose loved ones died of cancer over the same period had limited contact, 39% were unable to say proper goodbyes and 63% experienced loneliness.

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These are among the factors that members of the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice say have caused prolonged and unresolved pain and which health charities have warned are storing up a mental health crisis.

Karen Fraser-Knight, 55, who lost her twin sister to Covid in April, described her situation as living in “this perpetual state of Covid trauma”.

“I have flashbacks to what my twin must of gone through,” she said. “Because I wasn’t allowed to be with her, say goodbye to her, arrange her funeral as she wanted.”

Yvonne Fryer, 55, whose husband Miltos Petridis, 58, died from Covid in April, added: “Hundreds of people are now again dying daily of this virus in the UK and yet, there’s no sense of community grief.”

The research comes after calls for increased funding for support services did not appear to be heeded by the chancellor in Wednesday’s comprehensive spending review, which made no mention of addressing bereavement.

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Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, which has over 2,000 members, has joined with bereavement charities and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy to call for funding for helplines, professionally facilitated peer support groups, befriending services, counselling and for the worst affected people, trauma informed psychotherapy.

“The survey results so far show the exceptional challenges of pandemic bereavement in terms of difficult experiences at the end of life, restricted funerals and social isolation,” said Dr Emily Harrop, of the Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Centre at Cardiff University. “It is crucial that policymakers and those providing care and support to patients make changes to better support family members and close friends before and after a death.”

One grieving daughter told the researchers: “I caught Covid-19 from caring for my dad and was nearly not well enough to attend the funeral. This was really traumatic because I was frightened I might die.”

Another said: “I fear that the same will happen to me as I’m diabetic and have two autistic sons and I don’t want them to go through losing their mum in the same way. I’m terrified of them going to school and getting infected. How can I grieve when I’m terrified and trying to protect them.”

Others spoke of “vitriol and unkindness … with people saying it’s a hoax”, and a sense of anger with the government over its policies including the timing of the first lockdown.

“We now have the opportunity to prevent a further mental health crisis by implementing our recommendations to improve end of life care and bereavement support,” said Dr Lucy Selman, of the palliative and end of life care research group at the University of Bristol, who is helping lead the study. “Our preliminary findings also suggest that men and people from ethnic minority groups might have different experiences of bereavement and support. But to test this we need more participants in these categories.”