Bereaved by Covid, supported by counselling at the CovidSpeakEasy | Coronavirus

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When Edwina FitzPatrick lost the love of her life to coronavirus, she was plunged into such a profound state of grief, full of nightmares and darkness, she thought about ending her own life. But as the days without her husband, Nik Devlin, the 250th person in Britain to die from the disease, turned into weeks and months, her thoughts turned to the collective grief experienced by tens of thousands of people like her and how best to help them.

FitzPatrick, 59, an artist who runs a postgraduate course at the University of the Arts, London, has set up a series of free online support groups, called CovidSpeakEasy, to allow people whose partners have died from the virus to tell their stories and share their experiences.

“We’re awash with grief and sorrow in the UK,” said FitzPatrick. “But as the death toll has risen and risen again, one of the big problems is that every death has become a statistic. There isn’t the space for collective grief.”

“Normally people physically rally round. You get hugs at funerals. But at the moment, because we’re so distanced from each other, all the contact, the hugging, even shaking hands, is not possible.”

She learned that this biological need for human touch is recognised in many cultures and even has a name, “skin hunger”. It was one of the reasons she set up the group.

“I think everybody’s got skin hunger. It’s not about sex. It’s about someone stroking your arm or rubbing your back.” I thought, “We need to talk about this”. In other communities, in places like South Africa, if a child dies, the women get together and have collective grieving.”

The idea of a support group came to her after talking to two friends who had lost partners before the pandemic.

“When others are in the same boat, you get to the heart of things,” she said.

After advice from friends who work in the health service and the counsellor she began seeing when Nik died, she decided 12 people, each with a trained counsellor, would be the ideal number for an online group, each to run for six weeks.

The response to her idea has been overwhelming, she said. After placing an ad with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), she now has 30 fully qualified counsellors, including one who worked with families affected by the London Bridge terror attacks.

“This is a very different form of bereavement, that is both extraordinary and bewildering. Normally, with the death of a beloved, there’s a distraction,” FitzPatrick said. “The funeral, the rituals designed to distract you from the shock and the depression. But with Covid, there’s a silence.”

A study published last week found that family and friends bereaved by coronavirus suffer a “heightened grief” and there have been calls for counselling to be made available for families.

Devlin, 56, FitzPatrick’s husband of 19 years, was a writer who worked in design for a cutting-edge engineering company. He had been healthy, his only underlying condition mildly raised blood pressure. He died on 20 March after multiple organ failure, after three days in intensive care at Croydon University hospital, leaving her utterly bereft.

“My brother came over the night Nik died. We listened to Radio 4 to try to fill the silence and it was full of death, death. The silence of everyone else is awful too. No one knew what to say, no one could hug you. It was extremely isolating. Nik was Irish, he was a very chatty boy.”

Three days later, Boris Johnson called a national lockdown and, as she watched footage of makeshift morgues outside hospitals in New York, FitzPatrick began suffering nightmares. She described lockdown as surreal.

“I was there on my own, trying to teach a lot of the time. Going for walks, deliberately bumping into friends. And just going, ‘Oh bloody hell’.

“I was having nightmares, I was really worried he would end up in a mass grave.”

She believes many people are suffering post-traumatic stress because of the health crisis.

“There is a huge wave of grief and sorrow. It feels like the world is bathed in grief and sorrow.”

Like many bereaved by coronavirus, she could not have a large funeral for her husband due to social distancing measures. She decided against having any kind of immediate ritual at all. “Nik was an atheist, so it never would have been in a church.”

She organised his cremation by a company specialising in non-Christian services that carries out the service and delivers the ashes afterwards.

“I do think there is a problem in not having that ritual and I don’t feel I’ve had the opportunity to grieve in a way that that celebration does. A lot of other people who knew him also feel that.”

“I know, when we have a life celebration, more than 100 people will be there. Nik was a well-known, popular guy. He wanted to be in a firework display and that’s what we will have.”

The support group is Nik’s legacy, she said: “It’s what he would have wanted.”

The groups will run three times a week, Thursday evening, Saturday afternoon and Mondays, aimed either side of the weekend, which FitzPatrick found hardest to bear.

“The idea is, if that group is working after the six weeks with a counsellor, the group might even mange things themselves.

“My counsellor talks about how humans create narratives and legacies in order to survive. I’m realising these narratives stop the deaths from becoming statistics.”

She predicts the speakeasy conversations will be “bizarre and surreal and dark and sometimes funny”.

And, sometimes, profoundly poignant.

FitzPatrick talks of a recent email she got, from Nik, who had set up a forwarding email from his account before he died.

“I got an email saying his account had closed. It said: ‘Hi Edwina, if you get this message something has happened to me, I love you Edwina FitzPatrick, I love you so much.’”

Partners who have been bereaved by coronavirus can access free online support at CovidSpeakEasy.com.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Bereaved by Covid, supported by counselling at the CovidSpeakEasy | Coronavirus

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