A Year of Lockdown Grief: Part 1 - DenialBrain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett
On a Sunday in February 2020, I took my family to visit my father.
After the traditional extensive gravy-drenched Sunday roast (his speciality), he and I sat at the dining table, mugs of tea in hand, and did our usual thing where we just catch up about what was going on in our respective lives. Specifically, he’d ask me what I was up to, I’d tell him, he’d nod politely what with having very little grasp of what exactly it was I do, then he’d tell me his latest news and musings. That was fine, it’s how we worked.
On this occasion, he’d been helping care for an elderly relative, in decline from Parkinson’s disease. This led to Dad, an experienced raconteur, launching into a long, impassioned rant about care work and care workers, about how they’re obscenely undervalued and underappreciated in modern society. And yet, people still do it anyway.
I’ve thought about this discussion a lot since that day. Partly because the pandemic was about to hit, and the role of care workers, and how unappreciated they are, became a big part of the public discourse. Dad was ahead of the curve.
But my main reason for dwelling on that conversation? It was the last face-to-face interaction I’d ever have with my father. A month later, he fell ill with Covid19. And on April 20th, aged 58, with no prior illnesses, he died.
I’ve been dealing with grief ever since. While under lockdown. For a whole year. And 127,000 families and friends in the UK have experienced very similar, a deeply painful experience, in previously unheard-of circumstances. How does this affect us? And what are the lasting impacts of it likely to be?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I’m a brain doctor, former psychiatry lecturer, and science writer, who’s gone through this first-hand. Maybe hearing about my experiences and accompanying speculations may be helpful? So, here they are.
Grief is more complex than we think.
You go through grief in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You progress through each stage in order, and once you’ve done ‘acceptance’, you are essentially, ‘done’. Many a sitcom would have you believe this is how grief works.
However, I’ve long been immensely sceptical of this concept. The terms “Predictable”, “Reliable” and “Consistent” can never be applied to human brains reacting emotionally to things. The idea that grief, an immensely powerful and enduring emotional reaction, follows the exact same sequence for everyone? Unlikely.
It turns out, I’m not alone in thinking this. This view was shared by the late Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who came up with the five stages of grief model in the first place. In her defence, she never intended for it to be taken as a rigid roadmap of how grief progresses, but rather an overview of the typical sorts of things people experienced during grief. In its true form, the five-stages model acknowledges that grieving individuals may experience the stages in a different order, or skip some altogether, and so on. Unfortunately, the reality has been oversimplified and proliferated by the mainstream. It was ever thus.
Truthfully, grief is a very subjective, individual experience, but one that can be shaped by culture, circumstance, relationships, personality, and much more. Accordingly, some argue that studying grief on a purely individual basis can give misleading impressions of how it works.
Of course, if there’s one factor that has a big impact on how people grieve, it’s a global lockdown.
Grieving in lockdown – an onslaught of denial.
So, it’s not that the five stages of grief aren’t part of the process, but they’re more complex and nuanced than is widely assumed. And for me at least, they’ve all played a part in my grief in lockdown. Just not in the way you might think.
For instance, denial, the ‘first’ stage, was a big part of my grief experience. But it wasn’t my own denial.
As much as I wanted to deny that my father’s illness, decline and eventual death were happening, I couldn’t. I’ve been a bizarrely-increasingly-prominent scientist for nearly two decades. As much as anyone can, I operate in a realm of evidence and facts. I honestly couldn’t retreat to comforting illusions and unfounded beliefs, even in a situation as painful as this one. My very sense of self, of who I am, just didn’t allow me to do that.
But even if it did, the cause of my father’s passing was a tangible presence in nearly every part of my day-to-day existence. Coronavirus was part of every social media post, news story, rare jaunt outdoors, repeatedly reiterating the reality of my situation. So, no, I couldn’t deny that my father was gone.
But all the expectations and actions and interventions that help us cope with grief and loss? Lockdown denied all those.
Being with my father as he died? Denied.
Saying goodbye to him, in person? Denied.
Holding the funeral he deserved? Denied.
Friends and family rallying round to help me through the worst time of my life? Denied.
Commiserating with all Dad’s other loved ones? Denied.
Getting away from my whole dire situation, even temporarily? Denied.
Obviously, much of this applies to the countless millions who struggled during lockdown. But when you’re in the midst of grief, these things are even more important.
For instance, a funeral is an important part of the grieving process. Even if you ignore the spiritual elements, they allow the grieving to feel a sense of control over events, something the loss of a loved one utterly deprives them of. This is an important aspect of wellbeing, given how our brains work. A proper funeral for the departed can be the first steps in coming to terms with it for those they leave behind.
But a lockdown funeral? Just a dozen people, sitting apart, rather than a room packed with hundreds, which is what my father would have got in normal times? Some might say “It’s better than nothing”, but I have to wonder… is it? If a funeral is meant to restore some sense of control, what does it mean if the funeral itself makes you feel less in control? Same goes for all the other things you’d normally do during grief, which have been denied to us by lockdown. What are the consequences for coping and wellbeing in this situation? I honestly don’t know. Time will tell.
That’s a big part of why lockdown makes this so much harder. Regardless of if the five reliable stages of grief are an accurate reflection of how the brain works, if you don’t hold with any of the spiritual/religious aspects of funeral ceremonies, if you technically ‘need’ your friends and family to rally round to support you; the cultures we grow up in often means we often expect these things to happen when we lose someone. They’re integrated into our brain’s mental model of the world. They’re part of our understanding of how grief ‘works’.
Maybe they act as landmarks in grief, like recognisable islands in a notorious strait in the sea, one we must sail through; they don’t make our journey any less challenging, but their presence and passing at least shows us we’re making progress. And that has value, can be reassuring. By denying us all the typical aspects of the grieving process, lockdown could be denying us this progress.
There’s just so much uncertainty here. Maybe this could all be beneficial? I personally feel OK at present. Maybe being isolated from the normal experiences of grief has allowed my brain to process the painful emotions more gradually, subtly. Perhaps going through this in ‘normal times’, while living a more normal life, would have emphasised my father’s absence more? It could have been the grief equivalent of constantly ripping off the bandages, thus slowing any healing.
Alternatively, maybe me feeling OK is a form of stasis, a holding pattern. Perhaps being deprived of all the usual elements means my grief is on hold, and I (and countless others) will experience the full force of it once normality returns to the world post-lockdown, and the hole in our lives left by those lost will be thrown into sharp relief.
I’m hopeful that I’ll be OK, that there has been enough time for me to come to terms with it all, and that the return to normality is gradual enough for it to not be jarring. But that’s the thing; I don’t know. I’d love to know, whether it I’m over the worst of grief, or if that’s still to come. But I can’t.
Thanks to the lockdown, that information is denied.
Dean Burnett covers all manner of things mental-health in his new book Psycho-Logical, available now from all good retailers, and on the Brain Yapping podcast he hosts with Rachel England available her at the Cosmic Shambles Network or on all major podcast platforms.
Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University. He is @garwboy on Twitter.