‘It was brutal. It still is’: a qualitative analysis of the challenges of bereavement during the COVID-19 pandemic reported in two national surveys

Anna Torrens-Burton (Cardiff University School of Medicine), Silvia Goss, Eileen Sutton and colleagues examine the difficulties faced by people bereaved during the pandemic (April 2022)

Background The COVID-19 pandemic has been a devastating, mass bereavement event characterised by high levels of disruption to end-of-life, grieving and coping processes. Quantitative evidence is emerging on the effects of the pandemic on grief outcomes, but rich qualitative evidence on the lived experiences of people bereaved during these times is lacking.

Methods We analysed qualitative data from two independent UK-wide online surveys to describe the experiences of 881 people bereaved during the pandemic. We analysed the data in two phases, conducting an inductive thematic analysis and then applying Stroebe and Schut’s Dual Process Model (DPM) and concepts of loss-oriented and restoration-oriented coping (1999; 2010) as an analytic lens to further contextualise and interpret the data.

Results We identified six main themes: troubled deaths; mourning, memorialisation and death administration; mass bereavement, the media and the ongoing threat of the pandemic; grieving and coping; work and employment; and support from the health and social care system. Examples of loss-oriented stressors included being unable to visit and say goodbye at the end of life and restricted funeral and memorialisation practices. Associated reactions were feelings of guilt, anger, and problems accepting the death and beginning to grieve. Examples of restoration-oriented stressors and reactions were severely curtailed support-systems and social/recreational activities, which impacted people’s ability to cope.

Conclusion Study results demonstrate the exceptionally difficult sets of experiences associated with pandemic bereavement, and the utility of the DPM for conceptualising these additional challenges and their impacts on grieving. Our analysis builds and expands on previous use of the DPM in explicating the impact of the pandemic on bereavement. We make recommendations for statutory, private and third sector organisations for improving the experiences of people bereaved during and following this and future pandemics.