Digital life after death: how to help the bereaved in a pandemic

With the death rate far higher than is usual, and traditional funerals outlawed, the digital divide means some people can't even say goodbye

Grief via iMessage. Pic: by Fiona Holland.

Losing a loved one is already a painful process, so adjusting how we might normally grieve seems almost unimaginable. But for one Croydon woman, the opportunity for a normal send-off for her family members was shattered at the start of the pandemic last year. She lost not only her mother, but also her daughter within one week. Due to Covid restrictions, both funerals were held online, but her limited digital skills meant she was unable to attend without help. 

Happily, local digital skills service Clear Community Web stepped in to help her watch the funerals. “It’s a real and horrible scenario, and because of that I think we’ve really been on [a type] of frontline. Going online is not a learning opportunity [in this case], it’s critical support,” says its founder Caspar Kennerdale.

The pandemic has brought a much larger death toll than usual to the Eastlondonlines boroughs over the past 12 months. Comparing data from the ONS in 2019 with 2020, it is clear that there has been a rise in deaths in all four boroughs.

In Lewisham deaths went up by 42 per cent from 1560 to 2217 people with a further 540 passing away since the start of 2021. Out of those numbers, 578 people died from Covid.

Croydon follows suit with an increase of over 45 per cent from 2526 to 3664 people, and a further 866 deaths this year. The borough has seen 980 people lose their life to Covid.

Tower Hamlets has seen just over 50 per cent more deaths, going up from 988 to 1517 people, and has seen another 424 people pass away since January. 503 people were killed by Covid in the borough.

It is Hackney however that has seen the largest overall increase between 2019 and 2020. Here, there was a 54 per cent rise in deaths, going up from 1090 to 1680 people. The borough has also seen a 442 more people lose their lives since the year began, and has seen 495 people die from the virus.

More deaths inevitably means more support has been needed, now more than ever, for those who are grieving.

What support is available?

Chris Roe is a member of the team working at the Rowland Brothers Foundation, a charity set up by funeral directors to support bereaved people. His team has noticed that most people using their services this year are also experiencing mental health problems. “If you’ve had a bereavement in lockdown, that’s tougher. You’ve had the funeral, but it was so surreal, you feel like you’ve had no closure, and mental health issues [arise] because all your stress issues are up in your face, too.”

To tackle the problem, as well as offering telephone and virtual support, they started a virtual support group with the Croydon BME Forum, “that’s not just bereavement, not just mental health, but a mix of the two”.

Virtual has also been the prime mode of support during the pandemic for the major bereavement centres in the ELL areas, like the Croydon branch of Cruse, and St. Christopher’s, which has branches in both Croydon and Lewisham. In non-pandemic times, Cruse Croydon offers a support service both over Zoom or telephone, as does St. Christopher’s, through what they call the Bereavement Help Point service.

Christine Warner, 56, is a counsellor and lead for St Christopher’s Bereavement Help Point service. For her, virtual support offers more benefits than a telephone call: “You get the opportunity to have more than one person [to talk to]. Sometimes people will join the Help Point and not really want to talk that much, but actually just listen. They may want to say a little bit, or something might really resonate with them in another week, it just gives them that little bit of confidence.”

Not everyone using the support sessions from St Christopher’s has been able to access a computer. But in those cases, they have been able to offer tablets to people who don’t have access. “On the forms we send out [advertising the Help Points] we ask people to tell us if they’ve got any issues with accessibility. There are also people within the hospice that give training on Zoom,” says Warner.

Warner says online bereavement support will be here to stay in the long run, even when in-person support starts to return. But in order for it to be useful to the most vulnerable, she says: “We need more points in the community where people can go to access Wi-Fi easily. It wasn’t really thought of as something that would be necessary and yet it’s been the lifeline for so many people. I think we need to be genuinely more aware of that and make it cheaper. I don’t know how that happens though, it’s blue sky thinking obviously.”

But how do you let the bereaved know local support is available if they cannot access the internet? “It’s a very good question,” says Roe. At the minute, he thinks the best way is through word of mouth: “It’s difficult, especially in this day and age, [but] the most effective thing has been networking.” One benefit of the pandemic is that it has allowed for a progressive increase in co-operation between other charities in the borough, he adds.

“We’re proud to be founding members of Croydon One Postcode, which is a community group helping young people in [the borough] … Every Friday there’s a meeting including the police, council councillors, business [people], various charities.” If someone at these meetings comes across someone who needs help, they will most likely know The Foundation, so they can be directed straightaway. “There’s no substitute for that,” he says.

Nothing beats in real life

The digital divide is certainly impacting bereavement support on socio-economic grounds, but what seems to ring true more than anything is that virtual meetings cannot replace in-person support. During the pandemic Cruse Croydon’s support service has been giving support to 121 users via telephone, with only four people taking up support through Zoom. The Bereavement Help Point service also supports approximately 250 people a week, with 25 using Zoom, but the vast majority asking for support through the phone.

While Roe acknowledges that the virtual support groups have been successful, he stresses that for some there is no beneficial alternative to seeing someone in real life when grieving. “If somebody really needs it, we would [give] face to face support, going for a socially distanced walk in the park for instance … I don’t think it was so much that they felt they couldn’t get online, it was that they just appreciated the one-to-one so much more.”

The main issue affecting the enlarged amount of bereaved people in our boroughs then, is not solely the question of whether or not enough have been able to access support online. It is also the question of whether or not bereavement support can ever work as well in the digital space as it does in real life.

Click here to read more of the London’s Digital Divide series: #LondonsDigitalDivide.

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