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'They need protection': road deaths charity helps Covid bereaved

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent
·3-min read

A charity that helps people cope with the trauma of sudden road deaths is now also supporting those left bereaved by the coronavirus, who face similar extreme shock and potential post-traumatic stress.

Case workers are being assigned to about 200 families a month by Brake, using techniques that were also honed when helping the relatives of those killed in the Manchester Arena terrorist attack in 2017.

Brake’s Sudden service has been majority funded by the Department of Health and Social Care and is due to wind up in March. But the charity is calling for extended funding as the latest wave of the virus takes daily death tolls to their highest levels yet.

More than 100,000 people in the UK have died from Covid-19. The parallels with car crashes included sudden death, and in many cases in the middle of life, said Mary Williams, the chief executive of Brake.

“It’s about having the heart ripped out of your family unexpectedly,” said Williams. “For example, we know road deaths happen but we don’t believe it’s going to happen to us. We know Covid deaths happen but we don’t understand it’s going to happen to us. We have no experience of it because we are so disconnected from sudden traumatic death we are not equipped to cope.”

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Rachael Singleton, 43, from Belfast, used the service after her father, Tony, 71, died from coronavirus after being mistakenly admitted to a Covid ward during treatment for an unrelated infection. She was unable to see him, the hospital forgot to call before he died, and then sent home another man’s clothes.

“Over here we would normally have a wake and dress him, but he was naked in a body bag,” she said. “It was hellish.”

The counselling helped her see that what she had experienced was trauma.

People bereaved in the first wave have spoken about the traumatic effect of ongoing news about the pandemic and deaths, which makes it hard to “move through” their grief.

Related: The psychological toll of coronavirus in Britain – a visual guide

Due to the latest surge, more bereaved people have been joining support groups such as Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice in recent weeks. It has welcomed 660 new members since late November, bringing to nearly 2,300 the membership of its Facebook community. It is calling for a national programme of bereavement and grief support.

“The need for help is huge,” said the campaigner and psychotherapist Kathryn de Prudhoe, whose father, Tony Clay, 60, died from Covid in April. “The new members list this week was massive. We have people coming in saying they lost their loved one yesterday or even this morning. It’s just an onslaught. What we have now is people like me, nine months on from bereavement, supporting the newly bereaved.”

Of Covid deaths in the UK in the first week of January, 11% were among people aged below 65. In the last year in England there have been more than 76,000 extra deaths compared with the five-year average.

The consequences of not dealing with the shock of sudden deaths can include PTSD and complex grief disorder, which leaves the bereaved person unable to move on, ruminating constantly on their grief for months and years until it is tackled.

Brake deploys experts in trauma care who try to stabilise people and “normalise their reactions”.

“It helps to say they are not going mad and their reactions, whatever they are – vomiting, rocking, stuttering – are normal and what they need is protection and safety,” said Williams.