National Grief Awareness Week (2-8 December) feels more poignant than ever. Anita Ghosh, who lost her dad at 13, discovers a new generation of grassroots grief groups helping us to talk about death and break bereavement taboos.
For the best part of two years, we’ve confronted death on a scale we haven’t experienced in generations. We’ve worried about the safety of our loved ones, reckoned with our own mortality and incorporated daily death numbers into our lives in a way that’s sometimes felt as normal as checking the weather. But none of it has been normal.
Behind every number, is a person, a life, a soul. There’s been over 5 million reported deaths worldwide from Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. That’s over 5 million mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters – the list goes on – who are no longer here. If, as a study published in the journal of the National Academy Of Sciences suggests, for every person who dies of coronavirus, 8.9 relatives are bereaved, that leaves behind over 45 million people grieving – a size similar to the population of Uganda.
Living through such colossal loss was always going to be incomprehensible and it’s transformed our lives in ways we’re still processing.
But what’s made it even harder is that as a society we’ve never really coped well with death. It’s something we fear, and because we fear it, we ignore it, pretending the thing that’s undoubtedly going to happen to all of us, won’t. Herein lies the problem. We haven’t developed the language or skills to properly talk about grief and death and really support people going through it.
Lucy Selman, associate professor of palliative and end of life care at the University of Bristol and founder of Good Grief Festival, explains: “In other cultures, grieving is more demonstrative and people are encouraged to think about death. However, in the UK, particularly pre-pandemic, grief has been seen as private, something to be done on your own.”
My first encounter with grief came early. I was 13 when my dad died. Looking back, there was no real offer of help or support, just a form teacher who took me aside after class and told me that what wouldn’t kill me would make me stronger.
I was lucky that I had my mum and brother, all unified in our loss of dad, but the cruel thing about grief is nobody can completely relate and it can make you feel devastatingly alone.
Friends supported as best they could, but none of us knew what to say, so we said nothing at all. Besides, I was desperate to get back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible, conscious that for an awkward teenager, the death of my dad was just another thing that made me feel like an alien.
“When I lost my mum at 20, no one prepared me for how it would affect my life,” says Kat Hooker, founder of The Dead Parent Club podcast. “I was desperate to talk about it, but it felt like no one wanted to or knew how to.”
It wasn’t until Hooker met someone at university who had also lost a parent that she finally felt someone got her and she could talk openly and frankly about her grief. “I found this huge relief from connecting with someone where we could cry about how horrible grief is one minute and laugh about it the next.”
Realising what a lifeline these conversations were, The Dead Parent Club began. “We literally created it for people like me and you because there was nothing there 20 years ago,” she says. Now co-hosted with her friend Emma Jones, who lost her mum as a teenager, they speak each week about what it’s really like to lose a parent at a young age. “Perhaps the name or what we talk about isn’t pretty, but neither is grief,” Hooker says candidly. “It’s a club no one wants to be in, but if you’re in it, when you see the name you totally get it.”
In a survey from palliative, neurological and bereavement support charity Sue Ryder, being able to talk freely was listed as the number one action participants felt could help following a bereavement. Yet, with a third of those surveyed unable to open up to those around them, as a society we’re just not there yet. But, there’s change afoot.
There has been a surge in the number of grief communities, with people like Kat and Emma carving out their own spaces to talk openly about grief.
During the pandemic, many of these groups have transitioned online and #grief now has 1.4 billion views on TikTok, where users share raw, honest and nuanced videos of what their grief journey looks like.
Over on Instagram, virtual platforms are being created for people to share their experiences and seek support. Griefcase, a monthly meet-up (currently virtual) and Instagram community, is one of them. Speaking with founder Poppy Chancellor, whose dad died in 2016, she explains: “I wanted to create a place where we didn’t need to suppress how we felt remembering those we’d lost but also a place to discuss how to navigate life without them.”
Beginning in her living room with five friends who had also lost someone, Chancellor encouraged everyone to bring a piece of writing or an object associated with their loved one and talk about it. “All our losses were different and unique but somehow just all so relatable,” Chancellor recalls. “I wasn’t alone in my experience.”
This need for connection is a sentiment echoed by Rachel Wilson, founder of The Grief Network, whose book Losing You(ng) is out in Spring 2023. “It started almost by accident,” Wilson explains. “Shortly before my mum died, she suggested I look for support groups for young people and I just couldn’t find anything.”
After sending a question into the podcast The High Low asking if listeners knew of any resources, Wilson received hundreds of responses from people in similar situations – grievers in their 20s and 30s who couldn’t find the grief support they needed. After meeting a few listeners, it grew from there, quickly turning into regular meet-ups in pubs across London and online during the pandemic.
“There’s something powerful about seeing a room full of young people who are all there for the same thing as you,” says Wilson. “You get to say things about death you usually can’t in normal conversations.”
This year, National Grief Awareness Week runs until 8 December, and in many ways, feels more poignant than ever. “Lockdown restrictions have meant families haven’t been able to say proper goodbyes and it’s been difficult for the bereaved to access the support they need,” explains Selman. “But the pandemic has brought death and grieving into the public eye and forced us to confront it in ways we haven’t seen before.”
As a result, there are signs of a shift in attitude. A survey from Co-op Funeralcare and YouGov found one in five adults feel more comfortable talking about grief because of Covid-19, and 47% felt more compassionate towards people who are grieving than before the pandemic.
“Be brave and address the elephant in the room,” Selman advises. “People fear the emotional risk of saying the wrong thing when it comes to grief, but it’s never wrong to tell a bereaved person how sorry you are and that you are there when they want to talk. Bereavement can be so isolating.”
Twenty years later, I don’t feel particularly wiser when it comes to grief. It flashes up when I least expect it and often vanishes as quickly as it appears. But, now I understand that grief doesn’t have an expiration date. However, there were so many moments during my conversations with the brilliant women who have set up these communities, or scrolling through their posts on social media, when I thought ‘Yes, me too!’ or ‘I thought I was the only one who thought that.’
In those moments, I wasn’t alone. I was connected virtually to thousands of people in a community where I wasn’t different. Just how powerful that would have been for my lonely 13-year-old self is indescribable.
If you, or a loved one, would like support with grieving, visit Cruse Bereavement Care.
Cruse Bereavement Care is the UK’s leading national charity for bereaved people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, offering face-to-face, telephone and website support. Visit the website at cruse.org.uk or call 0808 808 1677
Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland can be found at crusescotland.org.uk, call 0845 600 2227
Samaritans can be contacted 24/7 on 116 123 or visit samaritans.org