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'Death is always difficult but during a pandemic it's more surreal': The human side of the 2,000 lives lost to Covid-19

The death toll from Covid-19 in Ireland surpassed 2,000 people yesterday.

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THE NUMBER OF people in Ireland who died after contracting Covid-19 has surpassed 2,000.

The Department of Health confirmed yesterday evening that a further 12 people have died, bringing the total number of deaths to 2,006.

A further 379 new cases of the virus were also confirmed, bringing the total number of cases in Ireland to 69,058.

Commenting on the milestone of 2,000 deaths being reached, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan noted how much the pandemic has impacted families and communities across the country.

The daily updates on case and death numbers have become a routine part of life in recent months. But behind every number are family members and friends who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

Bereavement is always difficult, but during a pandemic it’s even harder.

Paying respects and showing support has become a largely virtual affair in 2020 – a rather alien concept in a country where it is, or was, common for hundreds of people at a time to congregate as a person was laid to rest.

Even if their loved one didn’t die from Covid-19, anybody who has been bereaved since March “has been impacted by Covid”, Orla Keegan, head of Education and Bereavement at the Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF), said.

The IHF launched a bereavement helpline (1800 80 70 77) in the summer and has received about 600 calls from people since then.

“We hear from people who’ve been bereaved because somebody they loved died with Covid. And we’re also talking to substantial numbers of people whose loved person died from another cause,” she told TheJournal.ie.

The cause of death is not the main issue, Keegan adds, it’s the fact a person they love has died.

“Grief takes the rug out from under you, regardless of what has happened, in that each loss is unique. This is your loved person who has died.”

Keegan said people who contact the helpline may have been bereaved several years ago but they are still grieving and need support. Some others who were bereaved earlier this year are only starting to feel the true weight of the loss now.

“They’re saying ‘it’s just beginning to land on me now, the reality of things’.

We’re not through a pandemic, we’re in it, so those people have had to adjust in a very exaggerated way.

“They were just getting on with it, and only now are they beginning to really feel ‘okay this has happened, this is what it means to me’.”

Keegan noted that when a loved one dies, a person’s “whole world is really turned upside down” and they have to adapt to a new reality. However, in the time of Covid-19, people are already adapting to a new, unprecedented reality – and many don’t have the same social network, at least in person, they typically would have.

“It’s a loneliness on top of a loneliness.

“You’ve been thrust into a changed world because somebody has died, so every aspect of your world is now new and you’re trying to make sense of that.

It could be the person that you usually turned to is the one who has died. They could be the person you ring first thing in the morning and they’re not there anymore.

“You’re reminded all the time that they are not around, your world is intrinsically changed. You’re left trying to adapt and that’s hard, hard work.

“And on top of that we’re all adapting to the loss of our normal world because of Covid. So it’s the layer upon layer of stress that people are facing.”

Another thing that has changed because of the pandemic is, of course, funerals.

Under Level 5 of Covid-19 restrictions, a maximum of 25 people can attend funerals. Earlier this year, during the first wave of the pandemic, just 10 people could attend.

Keegan noted that funerals are “totally different” now. The ritual of the funeral process was something people could “rely on” in the immediate aftermath of a death. Now that is largely gone.

“We used to rely very much on those sort of scripts, we all understood them. There was a procedure that we would go through and there were ‘landmarks’ in the days of grieving immediately after a person died.”

The lack of a ‘typical’ funeral, with a large crowd of mourners and sympathisers, has “hit people hard” and made them feel isolated, Keegan noted.

‘Which 25 people?’

Jonathan Stafford, managing director of Staffords Funeral Homes in Dublin, said choosing which 25 people attend a funeral is often very difficult for a family. 

“You would have families with 150 in the family, so just the immediate family can attend, and the others will stand outside social-distancing, and pay respect in that way. Some of the churches have outside speakers, or some people will just watch on the webcam.”

Mourners tell Stafford that death amid the pandemic is “more surreal”.

Death and grief is difficult enough but in this current phase of Covid, it’s just so, so bizarre.

Even if people can’t go into the church, they often line the streets as a mark of respect.

“Recently we’ve had a number of funerals that would have been very, very large funerals in the ‘normal times’, let’s call it,” Stafford explained. 

“People are still supportive but obviously from a distance. It’s just that on the day (of the funeral) it’s so different.

“I’ve noticed an awful lot of people gathering outside the churches, obviously social-distancing, and lining the roads. If the person is going from the house to the church, the neighbours will line the road.”

In recent days there has been a increase in Covid-19 cases, prompting Dr Tony Holohan to note two specific concerns – people gathering socially and for funerals.

Holohan said there have been a number of outbreaks associated with funerals amid reports of large crowds at wakes and churches.

“We understand that this is a difficult time for families but it is really important that we do everything we can to avoid the circumstances which promote transmission of the virus,” he said last week. 

The Irish Association of Funeral Directors said non-compliance with the guidelines has been observed at some funerals, particularly in rural areas.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland yesterday, IAFD spokesperson Mary Cunniffe said, at some funerals, more than 25 people are attending and some are not social-distancing or wearing face masks.

She said funeral directors are strongly recommending to families that the arrangements must be in line with Covid-19 guidelines.

Stafford said 99% of families understand the restrictions are necessary to “protect people”, and the other 1% usually “come around” after giving it some thought. He noted that the priests he has worked with in recent months also take the restrictions very seriously.

In his experience, when people are gathering they’re keeping two metres apart and often wearing face masks.

From a practical point of view, Stafford said little has changed for funeral directors. “Everything is nearly the same, apart from the amount of people that attend the funeral.”

‘Out of control’

Stafford said April was probably the most difficult month in terms of funerals – there was a large surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths in the early weeks of the pandemic.

“Going back to April, it was really out of control. That was the most difficult part for many funeral directors,” he said, before stressing that the difficulty faced by bereaved people is obviously much greater.

I was so worried that the same thing was going to happen, and my peers in the funeral sector were saying the same thing. The worst thing that could happen is if what happened at the end of March and April happened again, that would have been shocking.

“But the fact is, it looks like the government have done a good job in containing it,” Stafford said.

He said restrictions resulted in the number of Covid-related deaths flattening during the summer. “In the last month or so, we’ve obviously seen a rise, but not massively so,” he added.

Stafford said, it “depends on the age and the profile of the person”, but many people who died after contracting Covid-19 died before their time. Death, he told us, “came too soon for an awful lot of people”.

In September the government launched a 60-page plan on how people in Ireland will live with Covid-19 in the coming months. The document includes a section called “remembering our loss” which details how we’ll mark and reflect on everything we’ve gone through.

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The government’s plan states that Covid-19 has “brought grief and loss to our lives in ways that most of us have not experienced in our lifetime” and “raised our awareness of the importance of the processes and rituals related to bereavement, dying and death”.

“It is important as a people that we pause and reflect, take time to remember and pay tribute both to those who have lost their lives but also to everyone who has contributed to how we have faced and are facing the challenges together.”

The plan proposes a programme of national and local events to commemorate those we have lost, celebrating those who’ve helped us survive and ensure there is support for those who feel alone or lost.

The government has said it will collaborate with the media, civil society organisations and church groups on the approach and timing.

‘Reach in’

Keegan said people who are bereaved may feel as though “they’re locked away from others and that people can’t understand them”, but this isn’t the case.

“Reach out – that can be within your own circle, to a trusted person, or reach out and make a phone call to the helpline.

“And if you know somebody who’s been bereaved, ‘reach in’ to them because often people are embarrassed or they don’t want to upset someone, or they think ‘they seem to be doing well, I don’t want to start talking about the person who died’.

“No, take the chance and make the call and say, ‘How are you doing?’, Mention the name of the person who died, ask is there anything you can do,” Keegan advises.

For the person who is bereaved, the individual is gone, the body of the person is gone, but they certainly do live on in the heart and the memory of the bereaved person. Most bereaved people like to know that other people remember them too. To create an opportunity for a conversation is usually a good thing.

In terms of parents trying to help a child come to terms with a death, Keegan said “talking honestly” to children, in a way that manages their anxiety, is really important.

“Children are hearing about death so much now. Death is everywhere – on the radio, in the newspapers, it’s what people are talking about.

“It’s really a very changed and strange world.”

The IHF has developed a section on its website that specifically deals with grief during the pandemic, and it includes advice and information to help people of all ages who are grieving. 

Its national freephone bereavement service can be reached on 1800 80 70 77 from 10am to 1pm, Monday to Friday.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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