Rev Dr Andrew Goodhead is Spiritual Care Lead at St Christopher’s Hospice. As well as a practitioner, his research into memorialisation practices within hospices has been published in the academic journal Mortality and formed part of the 2017 collaborative and interdisciplinary study, Remember Me. For our Community Voices, Andrew reflects on the experience of Covid-19 and what that has meant for his work and the hospice community.
A phrase I often return to when I think about memorialising undertaken by bereaved men and women is that of psychologist and grief expert, Professor Robert Neimeyer: ‘human beings are inveterate meaning makers, weavers of narratives that give thematic significance to the plot structures of their lives.’[i] This is true in the sense that in every situation of life, to witnessing death and navigating bereavement, men and women create an understanding of what that event means for them and those around them.
Throughout the course of my work as a hospice Spiritual Care Lead, I have engaged with patients, their family members and friends who navigate a personal or familial journey through loss and meaning making. For some family members this occurs while a patient is dying. For many more this is achieved through planned memorial events; from quarterly services for family members bereaved around 12 months previously, to annual memorial events which draw people together who have been bereaved many years, often of multiple family members and friends. The heart of these events is the opportunity for an occasion which allows meaning to be created, held, and taken away – an act of remembering. This can be through reading a name, lighting a candle or some other simple action through which the dead are recalled.
A task for bereaved men and women is to make meaning; not only of the death of a relative, but of the life, and enduring relationship of the living with the deceased; integrating the memories of the deceased person into the current and future life of the bereaved person. My experience of organising memorial events illustrates that while this is personal, the opportunity to gather communally (in person or online) enables meaning to be made among other people. Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, writing after WWII of his experiences in the concentration camps of Poland and Germany, described the ability to make meaning as an attitude that an individual decides to adopt. That might be an attitude to rise above suffering, or, to submit to it. In a recent interview, Emmy van Deurzen (an existential therapist) reflected on Frankl’s response to suffering: ‘he was able to stand strong … through the worst of times, like a rock in the sea because he had been able to face the abyss and didn’t fear it any longer.’ Our ability to make meaning can, then, be both negative and/or positive and, depending on which attitude is adopted: the way we then face the future is coloured.
The global pandemic caused by Covid-19 has been challenging beyond the personal sphere. Accepted social norms have been stripped away. Gathering in public spaces and homes, socialising, participating in social and religious rituals were proscribed in March 2020. This has affected national economies just as it has affected personal health and bereavement outcomes for those who have experienced loss. Of significance within a communitarian framework has been the curbing of public and private gatherings. Funerals, weddings, baptisms have been limited to small numbers.
Anecdotally through the bereavement service at St Christopher’s bereaved people have described a mixed response to the changes to funerals. Some regret agreeing to a direct cremation (where the deceased’s body is taken to a crematorium for disposal and no ceremony or ritual takes place) and deciding to hold a memorial event when possible, while others describe the relief at not having been responsible for planning and attending a funeral with a large number of mourners. Normative social rituals that pattern and channel grieving have been lost to families, friends and work colleagues and at this time have not been replaced by other means to model or guide grief after a death. Perhaps a hope remains that there will be a return to normality, so that funerals, memorial services and wakes will simply begin again.
The accepted rites of grief and bereavement, particularly funeral and post funeral rituals suddenly ended in early 2020. The hospice offers bereaved relatives the memorial services described above. We also have a dedicated space for people to be quiet, reflect, read, pray and remember. This space, called The Pilgrim Room is often used by bereaved relatives, and patients, families, friends, staff and volunteers. We reduced our footfall to inpatient visitors in March last year, so the activities of the Pilgrim Room, our accepted ritual space, have been largely inaccessible. This room has votive candles to light and a Memories Book. Both have been unavailable. Essentially, Memory Books offer a means for people to engage with bereavement safely, in a controlled, personal way and to then return to the world. It is clear that the recent theories of continuing bonds and the “dual process model” are at work in the lives of bereaved men and women who choose to write. It is impossible to say what the inability to attend in person to write in the Memories Book or light candles means for those who usually do this on the anniversary of a death, birthday, Christmas or Valentine’s Day when reconnection with the deceased becomes pressing.
Free writing offers an opportunity to maintain continuing bonds with the deceased and to express ongoing grief in the context of restoration to daily living. In my study of the opportunities to memorialise offered by 10 UK hospices (in person events and memorial books), the moment in each of memorial services when the bereaved were invited to specifically engage with a time for remembrance; sometimes including a physical act – placing a stone or flower on a table for example – the attendees clearly saw this as their moment. As I noted from the study findings, ‘bereaved people use the opportunities which hospices afford to continue to take meaning from the life of the deceased and for a time at least to bring the dead into their world.’ The lockdown in March 2020 meant that all our quarterly memorial events became virtual opportunities and the creation of the annual remembrance service moved to a recorded event, available online. There is undoubtedly a loss at the inability to gather together and participate in an Act of remembrance when the dead are recalled.
How these services are received through an online format remains to be understood. They are curtailed in length, communitarian elements (shared responses, singing) are lost and, there can be no sense that the gathering online is as helpful as being with ‘others … [who] are in the same situation’[ii]
While bereavement is an unavoidable existential crisis, Frankl’s writing suggests that within us lies an ability to be resilient. Over the past months, men and women have navigated enforced change in the social ritual opportunities of grieving and memorialisation. A societal shift has occurred, not gradually, but in a single moment of time. This shift may, or may not, lead to radically changed grief and bereavement rituals in the future. Van Deurzen is right to suggest in her interview that ‘it is not enough, and almost certainly impossible, to aim for people simply to re-emerge and re-establish their old lives. New lessons have to be learnt from this period of trials and tribulations. These are existential lessons.’ Van Deurzen speaks in the context of therapist and client, but I believe there is a societal shift which needs to occur if we are, as individuals, families and communities, can adopt an attitude which will enable our inveterate meaning making to thrive and move forwards. None of us can remain doggedly rooted to the past. If we do, we lose some of threads, the thematic narratives, which make life an holistic experience.
[i] Neimeyer, R. (2005) Grief, loss and the quest for meaning; narrative contributions to bereavement care. Bereavement Care, 24 (2), 27-30.
[ii] Duncan, Findlayson and Wilson, P. “An evaluation of a hospice memorial Service.’ Bereavement Care, 23(1), p.9.