How the 12th May Diaries can help us to understand death and grief during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Chloe Daniel – Mass Observation Archive Assistant

Content warning: this post discusses the themes of death and dying

‘After she died, I fretted that I might not have been praying hard enough or in the right way or not asking God hard enough to keep her alive and let her recover from this terrible virus, Please don’t take her yet, we’re not ready for her to go. But it didn’t work and during the first days following her death I started to feel anxious that things might have turned out differently if only I’d prayed harder.’[1]

I was not sure how to begin this post. Having not lost anyone to COVID-19, I did not think that my own words would appropriately convey the grief and anguish that people across the world are feeling right now. Consequently, I chose to start with the quote above. The words of a person who lost a loved one to the disease. The sorrow throughout the diarist’s entry is palpable and highlights just how much devastation COVID-19 has caused.

As of today, 10th April 2021, 127,040 people in the United Kingdom have died within 28 days of receiving a positive COVID-19 test. 149,968 people have died with COVID-19 on their death certificate.[2] This figure is the equivalent of a city, somewhere between the size of Oxford and Cambridge vanishing. Over 149,968 families and friends are now having to adapt to live with loss. Unfortunately, by the time you read this, I expect these numbers will have increased again.

Even for those who have not had to directly deal with the loss of a loved one this year, death has still been ever-present. It has been impossible to escape the daily announcement detailing the number of people who have died. Scenes inside intensive care units of hospitals at capacity shown on the six o’clock news have also become a distressing addition to teatime television. Many writers have detailed how they have found the news coverage so intense and traumatic that they ‘rationed’ their daily news intake or stopped watching it entirely.[3] Several writers have discussed experiencing strange dreams during the pandemic. For some, these dreams have been distressing and highlight that even sleep does not allow an escape:

‘Last night I dreamt of two of the people I worked with closely for years. It was a sad dream as they both died during the dream from the virus.’[4]

I fear that the impact the virus has on the nations mental health will be as catastrophic as the impact it has had on physical health.

Unsurprisingly, many of the entries we have received discuss death. While it is a difficult topic for many, it would be wrong to avoid talking about it. The most obvious thing to note is that the pandemic has caused many people to rethink their plans regarding their death. Other entries discuss funerals and the grieving process. Below, I will discuss what these entries tell us about how people dealt with and felt about death during this period.

The pandemic and preparing for death

According to the Office for National Statistics, a baby born in the United Kingdom between 2017 and 2019 has a life expectancy of 79.4 years if it is male and 83.1 years if it is female.[5] Improvements in modern medicine have meant that infectious diseases, which may have been a death sentence to our predecessors, can now be cured by taking a simple course of antibiotics. Consequently, in modern Britain, death does not pose the same level of threat to us in the same way that it did to our ancestors.

COVID-19 changed this. There was no cure and when there is no cure to a disease, the fear of death becomes very real. It was not until the 2nd December 2020 that the first vaccine for COVID-19 was approved for use in the United Kingdom.[6] This was 254 days after the first lockdown was introduced. For many, this eight-month period was a time of immense concern as there did not seem to be an end in sight.

Some diarists began to make preparations detailing what they wished to happen if they were to die:

‘My husband and I […] have been discussing what we would like if we became very ill with Covid 19. We would not want intensive care unless we were very likely to survive it. We would prefer to die as gently as possible, with palliative care in our own house, and be with each other. We have been writing death plans.’[7]

Others thought about the legacy that they are going to leave behind and have touchingly begun to document family stories for future generations:

‘Tonight I also have a slight cold which immediately makes me worry as to whether I have got Covid. I don’t have any underlying health issues but I do worry about dying. I have started to write family stories for my granddaughter and daughters but I can’t really bear to think about not being here for them.’[8]

‘I am spending today going through my old photo albums and removing anything that will be of no interest to anyone else but us and writing on the back telling of the occasion and who the people are in the photos.’[9]

‘Continued to stick some photos into an album – they are of my younger daughter as a baby and toddler; I get very sentimental when I look at photos of my children when they were little. At the moment I sense a great urgency to finish things I have been meaning to do for a while. The thought that I might fall ill with Covid 19 is very much on my mind. So I want to feel that I have put my affairs in order as much as possible, in case I were not to survive.’[10]

The pandemic has also highlighted fears around what will happen to those who are left behind:

I’m much more aware of my own mortality since the pandemic began. In fact, I’ve been feeling anxious that neither of us have written a will yet, and we plan to do so soon. We are unmarried and I worry that if I died suddenly, my partner would become homeless.[11]

Others have had potentially lifesaving treatment stopped due to the pandemic. The below writer who has motor neurone disease and has sadly had their medical trials paused noted that:

My husband prays each night for a miracle cure, then cries and cries and cries. His sorrow is hard to bear, but I mustn’t grumble, far worse things happen every day in the hospitals and the streets and he must bear the burden of life when I am gone. He will have to live the years I will not have, although how he will cope is a moot point.”[12]

This heightened awareness of death is something that has been experienced across the country. Interestingly, in April 2020, The Independent reported that COVID-19 had caused a ‘surge in will writing.’[13]

While the pandemic has encouraged many people to address death, it has also prevented some people from coming to terms with inevitable loss.

A school student recorded how they were struggling with being unable to visit their grandmother, who had been diagnosed with cancer and was only expected to survive for a couple of months. The diarist noted that:

‘doctors can’t really do much for her apart from making her as comfortable as possible but I think the most upsetting thing for me is that I can’t see her because only adults can see her.’ [14]

The writer later noted that they were still hoping to have the chance to visit their grandmother before she passed away.

Therefore, it seems that in terms of preparing, the pandemic has forced people to think more deeply about death in a way that they may not have done previously. It has caused people to assess the impact that their passing would have on their loved ones both practically and emotionally and has encouraged people to open up and have more meaningful conversations regarding this subject. However, the pandemic and lockdown restrictions have also prevented many families from preparing when they know that a loved one is dying. It has fragmented the process of being able to say goodbye and having one final hug. This has been a very distressing time for many people and as I will detail below, is has not been made easier by the funeral process.

Funerals during the COVID-19 pandemic

The lockdown guidance for March 2020 also placed restrictions on funerals. This meant that funerals had to have social distancing in place and only ‘members of the deceased person’s household or close family members’ were permitted to attend. [15] At a time when a hug and a handhold is so necessary, being unable to demonstrate affection in this manner was clearly a very painful experience for many.

One writer attended the funeral of their cousin the day before sending in their entry and detailed the event in their diary:

‘I have to say the funeral was one of the most upsetting I’ve ever been to – only 10 mourners allowed and all with social distancing which meant the widow sat entirely on her own in the front pew without even her sons sitting with her. Not an experience I ever want to repeat.’[16]

Another unsettling reality of this period is that many funerals have had to take place via video link for friends and family who cannot attend in person. For those who live alone and are going through bereavement, the sense of isolation is staggering. Some chose to override the restrictions in this situation:

‘Whilst I was shopping I decided to recontact the friend I spoke to earlier to ask if she could come in person to watch the funeral together. Although this is definitely not allowed under the social distancing rules, we’ve made the call that contact around this funeral comes under the ‘care of vulnerable people’ clause. For example, the friend whose brother died came to my flat yesterday, and we finally hugged and cried together. Despite the risk of infection it was really worth it for both of us, I think.’ [17]

During this period, it can be seen that funerals have been additionally traumatic for many due to being unable to express physical affection. For many, this has removed the ability to process their grief naturally.

Coming to terms with loss

The final part of this article will think about how the pandemic has impacted people’s ability to come to terms with loss. As mentioned above, the restrictions around funerals have completely disrupted how many people deal with grief. Social distancing measures and regulations on the mixing of households have meant that the experience of loss has been amplified. This is because after the funeral, many people have had to learn to adapt to life after the death of their loved one alone. One writer who lost their wife and lives alone details the difficulty of living in an empty household:

Like the last 4 weeks since my wife died I wake up either thinking that she is still alive or knowing that she is dead. I wake up and already everything is different, not like they were in March, no one to ask me how I slept and I them, no one to ask if they would like a cup of tea. That eeriness of silence.'[18]

Usually, many people find solace from having the physical presence of their loved ones around them during this period to hold, talk to and comfort. The above writer explains how much harder this experience has become due to lockdown removing the ability to receive support in person from relatives.

Then my Mum and Dad call me, I’m very grateful for this contact. In the reality where we have to social distance, not mix etc when someone dies in the old world it is hard. But grieving for the loss of a loved one in these lock down days is (I imagine) like receiving a life sentence in prison when you didn’t do it.’ [19]

We also received an entry from the parent of the writer above who explains the heartache they felt at having to comfort their child from afar:

‘My own grief has been raw and supporting […] from a distance has been unbearably sad. Although we did manage to attend […]’s funeral, unlike some families who have not been able to do so, not being able to even hug […], only being able to watch him from a distance as he was supported by […] felt so desperate’[20]

Another writer expresses sorrow at being unable to mourn the death of her mother with her sister:

‘It’s okay, apart from how much I miss my sister now every day at the moment, because she has been my solace, and me hers. She was the person I saw outside of this house, the person I hugged tightly.’[21]

Others have reported feeling an increased sense of anxiety after losing a loved one and being unable to grieve with family:

‘My anxiety is up – perhaps, given that we’re in the middle of global pandemic, that death is very present, that my own Grandad died in hospital alone 7 weeks ago, that I couldn’t attend his funeral and that I haven’t seen friends of family for two months, that is to be expected.’ [22]

Forced isolation has added an increased burden onto the load of grief. It has made the process of coming to terms with loss harder due to the inability to receive comfort when it is most needed. It has intensified feelings of isolation. I imagine that during this period, people have not only had to come to terms with their loss but have been forced to face it relentlessly, day in, day out. The inability to have other people around, even simply as a distraction, may have caused some to overplay the horrific events they have had to experience repeatedly in their minds. Reading the diaries, it seems that for many, the pandemic has made grieving even harder as it has stripped people of their right to say goodbye as they wished and receive comfort how they desire.


1 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1602, 12th May 2020

2 Author Unknown, ‘Deaths in United Kingdom’ (10th April 2021) [Accessed 10th April 2021]

3  Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_913, 12th May 2020

4 Mass Observation Archive, MT _2020_ 989, 12th May 2020

5 Edward Morgan and Stephen Rozee ‘National life tables- life expectancy in the UK: 2017 to 2019’ (24th September 2020) [Accessed 10th April 2020]

6 Michelle Roberts ‘Covid-19: Pfizer BioNTech vaccine judged safe for use in UK (2nd December 2020) [Accessed 10th April 2021]

7 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1451, 12th May 2020

8 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1692, 12th May 2020

9 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1946, 12th May 2020

10 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_2473, 12th May 2020

11 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1149, 12th May 2020

12 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1167, 12th May 2020

13 Kate Hughes ‘Covid-19 prompts surge in will writing’ (14th April 2020) [Accessed 10th April 2021]

14 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1856, 12th May 2020

15 Public Health England ‘New advice for safe funerals after discussions with faith leaders’ (31st March 2020) [Accessed 10th April 2021]

16 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1586, 12th May 2020

17 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1253, 12th May 2020

18 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_759, 12th May 2020

19 Mass Observation Archive, Ibid, 12th May 2020

20 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1602, 12th May 2020

21 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1033, 12th May 2020 22 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1009, 12th May 2020

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Posted in MO (Mass Observation), The Keep

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