Coping with the loss of a loved one during lockdown

Rhodri Owen, a second year physiotherapy student at Cardiff University, has written this blog about the loss of his mother during the COVID 19 lockdown

My mother Rosemary died just before the current COVID 19 lockdown from cancer. Losing a parent is difficult under any circumstance, but for it to happen at such an uncertain time has been confusing. I’m writing this so I can start to make sense of my situation, to begin the grieving process, and to offer some coping strategies to anyone in the same situation. 

I’m a physiotherapy student, and I was on my first clinical placement when I got the call from my Dad, that mum’s cancer treatment was being stopped. The disease was so advanced that nothing more could be done. I was told she didn’t have very long. I rushed home with my girlfriend, my thoughts racing. I honestly didn’t think I would make it home in time. 

Death and dying 

I was essentially on lockdown 2 weeks before the whole country was told to stay home. I shut myself into mum’s hospital room (along with my girlfriend, Dad and sister), spending her last few days sharing memories of childhood holidays, playing scrabble on her bedside table, and looking through old photo albums. leaving only to eat and sleep.

Dying isn’t like it is in the films, then again nothing is. Films being the only comparable I have. It occurs to me that no one talks about death. I think it’s because It reminds people of the inevitable finality of life. I would like to open up the conversation by giving an insight into my experience.

It’s an extremely emotional time, not knowing if any given moment would be her last. The thought of losing the most influential and important person in my life was devastating. Mum’s decline was slow and agonising, she wasted away in front of my eyes. The worst thing was the muscle twitches. End of life treatment causes the muscles to move involuntarily. It was also very difficult to have a sustained conversation due to the levels of morphine in her system.

‘Your mum is being placed with the palliative care team’ are words I’ll never forget. Translated into simple terms it means ‘your mum is going to die very soon’. This caused my brain to shut down. I don’t process things like this very quickly, the reality took time to sink in. 

Every day the nurses would come in and ask mum if she was okay and if she needed anything. On the last night the nurses asked if we were okay. This is when I knew, this is the end!

It’s one of the most emotional things I’ve ever had to do, saying goodbye to my mum for the last time. I have never cried so much in my life. The tears came like a flood, I felt the pain with my whole body.  Despite the heartbreak, I got comfort in saying goodbye. I was able to tell mum I was proud of her, that I loved her while she could still hear me. Being able to say goodbye offered me closure. 

There were moments of joy! A few days before mum died, we managed to pull off the great escape. One of the NHS’s amazing nurses allowed us to get mum out of her room in a wheelchair.  We took her downstairs for a change of scenery and to take a breath of fresh air. That moment kept me going, the smile on mum’s face keeps me going. Unfortunately, that was the last time she left the room. 

It’s hard to stay in a state of extreme stress for 2 weeks. The brain isn’t equipped for that type of overload. Even in this extreme time, my mind deceived me, convincing me it was normal. 12 o’clock lunches in the hospital canteen became the new normal, watching my mum throw up every 20 minutes (into a bed pan) became normal, holding my dad’s hand as he sobbed became normal. Until I got the phone call at 7 am Monday, 16th March, that mum had died. By this point my feeling were tantamount to relief. Mums suffering was over. 

The aftermath 

Arranging the funeral gave me some structure, something to organise, something to take ownership of. I felt useful again. Unfortunately, the current COVID lockdown meant only immediate family could attend. This made me bitter! I thought mum deserved a big turnout. It wasn’t until the day of the funeral that I realised; the lack of guests gave me a unique opportunity. To have ownership over the event. I felt less awkward, less nervous. Honestly, it brought me peace. The day was mine and my families; I could celebrate my mum’s life as I had intended. 

The weeks following have been difficult. In these unprecedented times when the comfort of an afternoon in a coffee shop or a day in the Mountains would have been just the distraction I need; I’ve been told along with the rest of the Nation to stay home. This task felt impossible initially, but here are some of the strategies I have used to cope, hopefully they will give you a starting place as well:

Five coping strategies I use: 

  1. Talk to your loved ones
    • Don’t bottle everything in, it’s okay to show your emotions. I’ve cried a lot! Alone and in front of people I trust. Talk about the person you have lost.
  2. Meditation is a great tool to utilise (I recommend the Headspace app; they have a grieving pack)
    • I try to meditate every morning, I’m not always successful, but consistency is the key. Meditation gives me that space to sit with how I’m feeling and understand what’s going on for me. It can be good to have distractions but it’s important to sit with your feelings to be able to process what you are feeling in a safe space. Being constantly distracted only kicks the stone down the road. 
  3. Exercise is key for me (I recommend cycling)
    • Exercise has always been my main coping strategy. I find that it gives me the clarity I need to get my thoughts straight. It helps re balance the chemicals in my brain.
  4. You don’t have to be sad all the time!!
    • It’s okay to laugh and to have moments of happiness, don’t feel guilty for enjoying yourselfThis will keep you going.
  5. This is your time
    • Use it to grieve, use it to come to terms with your loss and set down the foundations to be able to carry on with life, because life does go on. Use the lockdown to your advantage, take time to reflect on the life of your loved one and the times you have spent together.

Looking ahead

I’ve learnt that family is the most important thing. We have stuck together like a tight unit. The lockdown has been a blessing in disguise for me. I’ll be completely honest, my mental health has deteriorated, but I’ve had the time to face the anxiety and depression, the grief and the numbness, I’ve had no other choice. My grieving process has only just begun, but I can see better times ahead. I’m going to be a Dad to a beautiful baby boy in 5 weeks’ time. I’m certain this will bring me and my family some much needed joy. I’m going to continue with my course and make my mum proud.

I would also like to say a massive thank you to all the staff on Enfys ward at Glan Clwyd Hospital. You are all amazing. You made my mums last few days as comfortable as possible and you helped support us as a family. I will be forever grateful. 

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