Change, loss and bereavement

Page last reviewed: 3 June 2020

The Mental Health Foundation is part of the national mental health response during the coronavirus outbreak. Government advice designed to keep us safe is under constant review and will be different depending on where you live: more details and up to date information here.

During the coronavirus outbreak we have all been through enormous change, and some of us are experiencing loss of different types, including the profound loss experienced when someone close to us dies. 

Change and loss during the coronavirus outbreak  

Change and loss can involve many things. During the pandemic, all of us have been affected one way or another by changes brought about by loss of our personal freedom. This may be adjusting to the loss of not being able to go where we choose or coping with the loss in our income or job. The latter can in turn affect our identity. There will be many other more personal examples of loss.   

At this time, we have lost valuable aspects of our social connections with others, such as hugs and handshakes, social activities and simply sharing the same physical space with friends and relatives who are not with us in lockdown. We have also had to cope with the loss of power and control over our lives, and lastly, we have had to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic itself. 

More tragically, some of us may be coping with the death of someone close to us. This loss could have been compounded by not being able to be with the person who you love when they die.  

How our minds and bodies react to bereavement  

Whatever the loss, our mind and body will react to this change. Something or someone that was there before is no longer there. Something or someone we depended on as part of our lives has gone. There has been a change. This can shake our world, and how it does so, will depend on what has happened and what support we have in place to cope. 

When we are bereaved, we can feel anxious, sad, angry, shocked, grief-stricken, withdrawn, in disbelief, guilty, sad and in denial – and experience these in no particular order. We can struggle with sleep, concentration, our appetite and making decisions. We can also experience physical pain, such as headaches and muscle pain, as well as less specific bodily reactions that are similar to feelings of anxiety.  

C.S. Lewis described his grief on the death of his wife as feeling like fear: ‘No-one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid – the same fluttering of stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says.’  

It is normal to have mixed feelings following change, loss, and bereavement  

It is entirely normal to feel such intense feelings. It is a time of trying to make sense of the change our losses bring, whatever they are. It is about adjusting to our ‘new normal’. However, we also need to remember that when people are bereaved, their feelings are very challenging to bear, and sometimes they can feel intolerable. This can be a very difficult time. 

Viktor Frankl, who survived the unspeakable horrors of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, said:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”  

A few things that might help with change, loss and bereavement 

Here are a few self-help suggestions that might help you with any difficult feelings you may be experiencing while adjusting to change, loss and bereavement: 

  • Contact a bereavement charity: If someone close to you has died, it might be helpful in addition to the tips below, to contact bereavement charities such as Cruse or Winston’s wish and/or read quality information about the death of a loved one, such as this RCPSYCH piece on bereavement

  • Feel the feelings:  Allow yourself space to be with the feelings you are experiencing.  Sometimes you may find it useful to talk with someone about your feelings, such as a phone call or video call with a friend, or sometimes you may just want to be alone with your feelings. There may also be times when writing down your feelings and thoughts or using music or art as an outlet is helpful too. Remind yourself that with any loss and change, difficult feelings will follow. 

  • There is no time limit to grief: For many people, the intensity of loss will diminish over time, but for others, it may not. It is important to work out how we remember the person who has died, and how we continue relating to their memory and what they meant to us, even though they are not with us any more in body. 

  • Other types of loss: With other types of loss the feelings are likely, in time, to pass or to change. It might help to acknowledge that this is a time of adjustment. Allow yourself to let go of the thought that ‘everything will return to normal’, because it may not, but in time you will find a ‘new normal’. Henri Nouwen said ‘‘Hope is willing to leave unanswered questions and unknown futures unknown’.  

  • Give to others: Sometimes giving to others or an act of kindness can help you feel better. Consider volunteering, delivering groceries or calling someone who might live alone. You may want to read our random acts of kindness during the coronavirus blog for inspiration. 

  • Do something that is going to make you feel good: Doing something that makes you feel good can often be a welcome distraction from thoughts and feelings that are challenging to shift. Try something new like drawing, making music, growing seeds, reading a book, or watching a movie with someone else. 

  • Different ages and cultures may react differently to loss and grief: Be patient with others around you who may also be struggling with loss but express it differently. Remember that everyone experiences grief differently, and at different times and stages – this can include members of the same family group. 

  • Be honest with children: If you have children be honest with them about your own feelings and name them. Help them name their own feelings and use age-appropriate language to explain a death. Consider doing a creative project alongside them that reflects how they are feeling. Help them to learn how to look after themselves. You may find this information from the charity Cruse useful, it talks about what you can do to help a child who is grieving

When do I need to seek further support? 

If your feelings become overwhelming as a result of your loss and they are stopping you from doing most of the self-help things above please seek further support from: 

If you have thoughts of not wanting to live anymore or have plans to take your own life then please call 999 (UK) or go to A&E and ask for the contact of the nearest crisis resolution team. These are teams of mental health care professionals who work with people in severe distress. 

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” – Maya Angelou 

We are particularly grateful for the advice of external reviewers – in particular the valuable suggestions made by Andy Langford, Clinical Director of Cruse Bereavement Care.  Cruse offer specific advice on dealing with bereavement and grief during the coronavirus.