Science

The science of how lockdown messes with the way we grieve

Lockdown is affecting how millions of people grieve. We need to be mindful of that when restrictions ease, says Dean Burnett



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21 April 2021

Michelle D’urbano

A YEAR ago, my 58-year-old otherwise healthy father contracted covid-19. He eventually succumbed to it, and died. And I have been dealing with the grief ever since, while under lockdown.

If you go by how it is portrayed in mainstream fiction, grief is very predictable. You go through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Once through all these stages, you can move on with your life.

But reality is far more complex. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who came up with the five-stage idea, regretted writing it in such a way that led to its simplistic portrayal. The stages reflect the sort of reactions people can have, but they don’t form a rigid road map.

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Grief during lockdown is even more complex. I say this as someone who, like millions of other people, has endured months of it, cut off from friends and family. I fear this is causing genuine problems that are going unrecognised or unacknowledged.

Neurologically, emotions are a complex and unpredictable mess. The brain areas involved are intertwined with practically every other neurological function. This is why emotional experiences can affect us so potently and take so long to process.

Our brains learn and develop based on our experiences and understanding of the world around us. So, even if inaccurate or oversimplified, the cultural consensus about grief informs our expectations. We “know” that when you lose someone, you have a funeral and wake to say goodbye to or celebrate the departed. These accepted parts of the grieving process are thrown out of whack by lockdown.

And while well intentioned, socially distanced funerals may do more harm than good. Among other things, rituals give the bereaved a sense of control over events, something important for well-being, and something that, at present, is drastically reduced following the loss of a loved one.

My father was a widely beloved individual. Ordinarily, there would have been hundreds at his funeral. To have it limited to 14 next of kin? Nobody wanted that. What are the consequences for well-being if a funeral makes you feel less in control, rather than more?

Lockdowns have also made it difficult to adjust to my father’s absence. For months, everyone has been absent. It is the law.

Delayed grief, where the effects hit later, or complex grief, where someone has disruptive reactions to a loss beyond what is deemed normal, are conditions recognised by medical science. It could be that these problems arise because the experience of grief doesn’t match the expectations our brains have formulated.

Maybe I will experience the full effects of grief long after my father’s passing, when lockdown in the UK finally fully ends and my father not being there becomes “real”. Will this make me, and everyone else in the same situation, mentally unwell? I would argue not. But it is something that could harm the mental health of millions of people, long after the initial cause has occurred.

As understandable as it is, from my perspective as both a grieving relative and a neuroscientist, the current “Hooray, no more lockdown!” attitude of much of the UK media and general public only throws the enduring grief of many into stark relief.

While it is fine to embrace the improving situation regarding the pandemic in the UK, we should be in no rush to “move on” and pretend it never happened, or to condemn or sideline those still feeling the effects of what it took from them. That could make a bad situation worse.

They say that time heals all wounds. But if it is time spent in lockdown, it could mean healing is delayed. In situations like that, wounds can often get worse. We should recognise that.

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