The Pandemic Radically Changed The Way We Talk About Grief

"The thing about grief," Ella Risbridger explains, "is that once you're grieving something or someone, you can't really get rid of it." As the author of Midnight Chicken (2019) and The Year Of Miracles (2022), she is trying to get at the heart of her experience of writing after a loss. "It's less like a feeling and more like a realisation that the world is different now."
Both her first, Midnight Chicken and The Year Of Miracles which was released this year, are genre-bending cookbooks that meld memoir with recipes, focusing as much on life as on the food itself. Midnight Chicken was written after Ella’s partner, John Underwood, was diagnosed with a rare lymphoma at 25 and during his long, winding treatment. The Year Of Miracles came later, after he died. Ella says she worked hard to take The Year Of Miracles away from being a book about grief but that the nature of loss made it impossible.
"I feel very strongly that grief is less like an emotion and more like a filter on the world," she tells R29 over the phone. "Everything is a different colour, the highlights are different, the lowlights are different. Everything is just…a different everything. And so it became very difficult to write a book that wasn't about grief."
Grief like Ella’s is everywhere. It has always been everywhere, casting its filter over the way those in mourning see the world. But in the last few years its presence among communities, families and individuals has been particularly heavy. As Chance Marshall, lead therapist and cofounder of Self Space, explains: "grief is something that our culture encourages us to delay, avoid, hide, cheat and deny [but] the pandemic brought the undeniable and unavoidable reality of grief closer to consciousness."
By this point in 2022, pandemic restrictions have long since lifted in the UK and other, monumental problems – in the natural world and on the streets of Westminster – are looming larger in the public consciousness. And so it feels hard to bring up how the pandemic impacted us. But since 2020 the ways in which we think about, talk about and process grief have been disrupted. Discussions about grief take up more column inches while restrictions curtailed and delayed essential grieving rituals, technology stepped in to ease the practical stressors of death, and young women like Ella who write about loss have watched their platforms and audiences grow.
In June this year the UK reached a grim milestone as the COVID-19 death toll passed 200,000. As recently as April, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the UK. It follows that it was also the third leading cause of grief, leaving behind significant numbers of bereaved people who, due to restrictions, were not afforded adequate support or space to mourn. And this has knock-on effects.
Grief is not just affecting those directly impacted by COVID-19. There are people like Ella whose grief is not directly linked to the pandemic but have had to bear the impact of mourning in lockdowns. And there are those who found the restrictions gave space for old traumas to rise up, unleashing grief from situations that happened years before.
All of which begs the question: instead of rushing to move on from the pandemic and pretend that its impact (and the illness itself) is no longer with us, what can we learn if we look properly at how we grieved?
During the successive lockdowns, technology played a significant role in people trying to find community in grief, from Zoom funerals connecting relatives across the country to the performance of last rites over FaceTime.
Some entrepreneurs went a step further, creating apps that ease the burden of the more practical aspects of death, like managing all the paperwork when a loved one dies or alleviating the stress of death care by providing clear guidelines about what needs to be dealt with and when.
There are even apps that aim to support and be part of the mourning process, like Empathy, which offers both practical and emotional support after loss and Afternote, which sends your prewritten message to loved ones after death. Services like these can offer enormous comfort to those who have not been afforded the support and community they’d otherwise seek.
Although these resources are an ingenious use of the technology at hand, people like Professor Natasha Mikles of Texas State University have argued that digital substitutes do not offer the same sense of closure as traditional rituals of death and mourning.
In 2016 researchers found that performing rituals associated with mourning significantly alleviated the impact of grief and helped guide mourners towards a place of acceptance. This was true for a variety of cultural rituals, suggesting "a common psychological mechanism underlying their effectiveness: regained feelings of control". Other studies have shown that the greater the difference and significance between a ritual and day-to-day living, the more positive the impact on mourners.
Dora Kamau, a registered psychiatric nurse and mindfulness teacher at Headspace, agrees. "In the last few years, so much has happened on a personal and collective level and that grief compounds. There’s the pandemic and there was also loss of jobs, racial injustice, gun violence on top of what we’re experiencing in our everyday lives. Having rituals and mourning allows us to slow down and honour each event with intention and meaning."

In the last few years, so much has happened on a personal and collective level and that grief compounds.

Dora Kamau
While technological support can act as a stand-in or offer additional support for mourners, the process of using these apps has not been given ritualistic significance. The use of an app or a website to grieve could potentially feel too similar to 'normal' life; it doesn’t have the transformative role that makes funerals or other rites psychologically beneficial. And without the in-person congregation that was essential to mourning prior to the pandemic, there are limits to how much technology can facilitate community.
However, it is never as clear cut as 'technology bad, tradition good' and anything that can be beneficial should not be dismissed. Social spaces that speak to specific grief experiences, in particular grieving as a young woman, are among the positive aspects that have emerged from the world of digital mourning.
Tiffany Philippou is a lifestyle journalist whose memoir Totally Fine (And Other Lies I’ve Told Myself) was released this year. The book explores what she has learned about life in the decade since her boyfriend died at university. Tiffany tells R29 that losing someone in her early 20s felt incredibly isolating but that there seems to be less isolation now. "I felt really weird being 20 years old and going through this – there wasn't any literature that I was aware of, there was nothing for me to turn to. Whereas now there's young grief groups and things like that on Instagram. I think talking about grief as a young person is a gap that obviously needed to be filled."
Tiffany attributes this shift not only to the platforms themselves but to the ways in which the pandemic changed how we think about loss.
It is a shift that has been noted by many. "The pandemic has invited all of us to think and talk about grief and how it impacts all areas of our lives," explains Dora. "Oftentimes we associate grief with the loss of a person but the pandemic showed us that we also grieve the loss of an identity, a job, a future, a desire, freedom etc."
She adds that realising that grief affects us indiscriminately has encouraged people to develop more compassion. "I think we all realised that we’re all struggling to some extent and from what I observed, we were all a little kinder and more understanding with each other."
Despite this, there is much more work to be done.
"My instinct is there's been a cultural shift," says Tiffany. "But I work in this world that's deep in these things, following these Instagram accounts and focusing my work on it, so it feels like the world is a bit more progressive than the reality. Because [in the UK] we still don't have good language, processes or traditions as an overall culture around grief. People still find it awkward and don't know what to say."
"The reality is we have so, so far to go with regards to grief and stigma and shame," she continues. "But maybe these cultural shifts do begin on the internet with certain articles and certain books. Maybe the conversation is just beginning."
The experience of grief may be universal but the particulars are deeply personal, making sharing it publicly with others, whether on Instagram or in writing or both, a delicate balancing act. Being candid about your experience can work for some people, like Tiffany, but that isn't true for everyone.
Maddie Mortimer's debut novel, Maps Of Our Spectacular Bodies, came out this year and has just been longlisted for the Booker Prize. For her, it was crucial to write in a way that was inspired by – but not drawn from or about – her experience of losing her mum to cancer as a child. Maddie thinks that social media and its platforming of confessional writing encourages the sharing of grief.
"Grief is such a specific, personal thing, isn't it?" she tells R29. "I think that's what the lockdown and the pandemic has exacerbated – this feeling of just how private our experiences of loss and grief are, and how it's very hard to reach out and be able to put it into words."

Lockdown and the pandemic exacerbated this feeling of just how private our experiences of loss and grief are, and how it's very hard to reach out and be able to put it into words.

Maddie Mortimer
Maddie points out that young women often dominate these spaces that are now being filled with posts and books and thoughts about grief. "Young women have been given the platform in many ways. Particularly in fiction today [from debut authors], it's generally a space of youngish women. Likewise if you look at social media platforms, that's the realm of young women. There's perhaps a subconscious or inherently felt responsibility that young authors and writers feel."
Whether social media encourages you to share your own experience or you push against it to create a new, fictional world that can speak to grief, the merging and melding of the personal with the public and the written with the digital can ease the intense isolation that so often goes hand in hand with grief. And with the double isolation of a loss and pandemic restrictions shutting people out of the world, it’s no wonder that so many sought connection wherever they could find it.
Digital tools and the written word, separately and together, have found ways to ease the burden of grief that has been accelerated by the pandemic. But neither addresses the fact that the grief of the last few years isn’t just personal – it is a public health issue. 
Care workers, morticians and funeral workers have also had to reckon with the strain of the past few years. Numbers vary but it is thought that around half of care workers in the UK are considering leaving the industry because of stress as well as the cost of living crisis. The scale and speed of death has put those who work in the mortuary business at risk of burnout in the US, while funeral directors in the UK made a significant loss. The lack of support for those who work in the death care industry is matched by inadequate support for individuals who are grieving: workers' rights in bereavement are largely determined by the individual company and the significance of a death defined by whether or not a person is a 'dependant'.
There are psychologists who argue that the five stages of grief are a myth. Mourning doesn’t involve discrete stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance; it doesn’t proceed along a predictable linear path and it might not end in acceptance. 'Closure' is a simplistic myth. Grief, as it actually unfolds, is erratic and in many cases slow.
Literature, social communities, in-person mourning and apps that ease the burden and isolation are a sign that the way we talk about and handle grief is changing. But it should not fall solely in the hands of individuals or private companies. It is time to recognise that this grief is a public, not personal crisis, that death workers require support and that individuals must be afforded the space to mourn with the rituals that are significant to them.

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