Our guest blog in this series on death and grief in COVID 19 is from Kath Coulson
23 March 2020 – Lockdown Day for us all here in the UK. And we wonder, we worry – will life ever be the same again? But, we don’t know. No one knows.
However 23 March is a day for me, every year, when I am reminded that life will never be the same again. This year, I had just got back from a long afternoon walk in the New Forest with my husband, Mike, when the news of lockdown broke. It wasn’t unexpected, but it certainly was unknown and it was uncharted territory for anyone I knew. There was no one to ask how this was going to work.
23 March 1994 was the date that is etched in my mind forever as the pivotal day in my life with a most definite ‘before’ and ‘after’. This was the day that our seven year old son Philip died very suddenly from a brain haemorrhage, having been ill for only eight hours. So each 23 March we go out to find space to be with our thoughts, our memories, our heartaches – time alone, time together, time with God. Philip’s death wasn’t expected, but it certainly was unknown and uncharted territory for anyone I knew. There was no one to ask how this was going to work.
Life for me has never been the same since 23 March 1994 – but with the benefit of hindsight and a whole heap of other stuff, I can reflect and know that life can be rebuilt, there is hope, there is purpose, there is a future and God is good. I took a photo of the sunset in the New Forest on 23 March this year and added it to my Facebook profile with the words ‘grateful for God’s blessings’ because, despite everything, I really am.
I am no stranger to death, my first memory of loss being the death of my Granda when I was just eight years old, but I was kept away from all conversations and ceremonies surrounding that. I remember a girl from my year at school dying suddenly and seeing the tears and emotion of her closest friends and form teacher as they left school to attend her funeral. The death of my uncle very suddenly when I was a student was the first death that I remember needing to really process personally, and not understanding why tears would often come uninvited. Then the sudden death of my father-in-law when Philip, our firstborn, was only three weeks old, brought not only deep grief, but some very practical challenges, not least of which was making a 300+ mile journey. I needed to be there to support Mike, as the only surviving member of the family, in making arrangements for a funeral, sorting out a house and 30 years of belongings to get it ready to sell. And all with a three week old baby!
The sudden death of my own Dad only days after my 40th birthday brought into focus my own mortality, the very deep grief of my Mum losing her soul-mate after 54 years of marriage and the need to support her. Then the news of her death nine years later, very poignantly as we sat on the steps of Sydney Opera House, brought into sharp focus that the whole of that generation had now gone.
Losing a child for me was certainly in a league of its own, but has over time taught me to recognise that there is no hierarchy of grief – your worst loss is your worst loss. And that, whatever the loss, it is a difficult thing (and for me I think an impossible thing), to face alone. Grief is something which the vast majority of us, as relational beings, need to do, to some extent, in community.
Our support came from many different sources including those who we lived and worked amongst, since we were living on site where Mike was manager of a Christian activity centre. Philip was a part of everyday life there and, as such, they shared his daily life and so shared our grief. The school community were devastated and there was a huge sense of loss amongst the children and families as they had to navigate worries and fears amongst the children in the school. Our church community and that of our previous church just 20 miles away, where we were when Philip was born, were both rocked by this news, as well as many friends and family, locally and all around the world. No one expects to hear the news of the sudden death of a healthy seven year old. Each one of these individuals had a personal journey of grief to travel, but many chose to do it alongside us and as such brought us company, encouragement and hope. And alongside this was an overwhelming army of practical support carrying us through those first few months. In hindsight, I can see how very blessed and well provided for we were.
But what about those currently bereaved facing similar, although different, stories to ours: sudden loss, lives lost way before expected, elderly people reaching their more natural end of life, those who have suffered long and painful illness over many months and even years, who finally lose their valiant battle against cancer or other terminal illness. Where can they go for help and support? How can they find honouring ways to say goodbye to family and friends? Those who are bereaved are now facing so many more challenges than dealing with just the grief of losing someone special due to issues of self-isolation, social distancing and the inability to meet together in groups of any size to remember and give thanks.
The need remains the same, but for those supporting, for churches facilitating the expected rituals and ceremonies of saying goodbye, there is now a great need to be creative, to research, to think more widely and think long as well as short term.
There has been a huge surge in sources of ideas, information and opportunities to signpost in the recent few weeks, such that it would be foolish to try to write it all down here. So it seemed much more prudent to act here as a signposting service to helpful organisations and websites, which are being updated regularly with the latest guidance and changes in procedures. These will hopefully be the best ‘go to’ for churches and individuals who are looking for the best way to support families of those bereaved by COVID-19, as well as any other deaths, expected or sudden.
But let me reassure you that good support that is there in the early days is invaluable, as we all know. Grief isn’t something that mends like a broken bone so that there is no longer sign of injury; we bear the scars for life, even though life can be good and fulfilling. Friends who still remember, who know that there is still a gap in our lives even after 26 years, are like gold. Those who walk beside us long-term are the most precious of friends who we are truly thankful for.
Other Sources of Help:
Care for the Family:
- Articles on bereavement support during the COVID-19 crisis
- Support for Bereaved Parents
- Support for those Widowed Young
- Bereavement Care Awareness
Funerals during the COVID-19 crisis
- Ideas for funerals from Quaker Social Action
- Support for those struggling with funeral costs
- A few further ideas for funerals
- Ten suggestions from Care for the Family for those organising a funeral
- Advice from the National Association of Funeral Directors
Other bereavement support organisations in the COVID-19 crisis
- At a Loss – a directory of bereavement support advice
- At a Loss – a directory of bereavement support organisations
- Loss & HOPE – equipping Churches to Support the Bereaved
- Good Grief Trust – another directory of support organisations
- Cruse – Grieving and Isolation
Kath Coulson has been married to Mike for almost 38 years. She has 4 children, who live in Brighton, Bristol and Bournemouth (as she also does). Philip now lives in heaven, having left this earth far earlier than anyone expected. Normally she works for Care for the Family as Bereaved Parent Support Coordinator, together with Mike, but is currently on furlough and missing her colleagues and volunteer team very much.