Bereavement is one of the hardest things any of us will ever face. Covid restrictions have made it even harder. As we emerge from the pandemic, for many Londoners there will be no ‘return to normal’.

On Monday, 24 May, the London Blossom Garden at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was officially opened as a lasting living memorial to the impact of COVID-19 on our capital.

A total of 33 blossoming trees have been planted to create the new public garden, to represent all London boroughs and the City of London. It is the first and flagship site in a series of National Trust blossom plantings in towns and cities across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

London Blossom Garden symbolises how London is mourning, individually and collectively, with loss and death impacting so many families, friends, partners, colleagues and frontline staff. The opening of the garden also signalled the launch of a public awareness campaign.

In loving memory of Londoners lost aims to get London talking about grief and bereavement, reflect upon the scale of loss felt across our city during the pandemic, remember those we have lost and support loved ones left behind.

Throughout the pandemic people have been unable to say goodbye, funerals and other rituals of mourning have been severely restricted by lockdown, and people have been isolated from their normal sources of comfort and support. 

More than 19,000 people died in London as a direct result of Covid. For every death, at least five people are closely affected. Nearly 100,000 Londoners or more grieving the recent loss of someone close to them to Covid-19.

That figure doesn’t include people who are mourning someone who died elsewhere, or who died of other causes, but whose bereavement has equally been disrupted by the pandemic. Many Londoners are suffering a huge sense of loss.

The scale of loss, and the disruption to people’s mourning, make bereavement support a vital component of London’s recovery from the pandemic.

“Grief can feel very lonely,” said Philip Glanville, the Mayor of Hackney and co-lead of Thrive LDN. “And for many the grief experienced from Covid has been even more complex as our collective ways of remembering those we have lost have also been so altered by social distancing and lockdown.

“As a society, we shy away from speaking about death. As a result, bereaved people can find it hard to understand what they are going through, and to get the help they need, when they need it. And it can be difficult to know how to comfort somebody who is grieving.”

Of course, bereavement is not a mental health issue but a normal reaction to loss However it can be overwhelming. Without access to emotional support, people can become distressed, and the likelihood of developing a complex grief disorder, mental health issues, substance abuse, self-harm and suicide increase.

Dr Jacqui Dyer MBE, mental health equalities advisor for NHS England and co-lead of Thrive LDN, said: “Covid has devastatingly taken parent from child, sister from brother, husband from wife, grandparent from grandchild. Lockdown restrictions have made bereavement much harder, and research has shown the experience of Covid grief to be worse than other types of grief. As a result, we can expect many more people to require extra support.”

Ordinarily around one in ten bereaved people will suffer what is known as ‘complicated’ or prolonged grief. As a result of the pandemic this is likely to be much higher. It is estimated that up to 40% of people bereaved by Covid may require access to specialist services.

“Navigating bereavement services can be difficult, even if there has been some time after experiencing a loss. There is also a significant lack of bereavement services specifically targeted to the needs of London’s minoritised communities, who have been disproportionately hit by Covid,” added Dr Dyer.

“The launch of a citywide bereavement campaign to support and strengthen London’s bereavement sector is crucial. We must work towards bereaved people having access to support that meets their particular needs, when they need it.” 

Thrive LDN has put together bereavement resources to help people navigate the period after death. It explains what you can expect to happen, and lists organisations that can offer support.

Grief is as individual as your fingertips. There is no ‘right way’ to grieve, no rules about how somebody will feel, and how long it will take. Emotions do not follow each other in a tidy line.  Some people may feel they are coping and then be hit by unmanageable waves of grief some considerable time after their loss.  

Certain groups may require dedicated or specialist support. LGBTQI+ people may feel excluded from family arrangements. Children and young people need support tailored to their age and understanding. People need to be able to access support at the right time for them, and know that it’s OK to do so.

As we recover from the pandemic, now is the right time to reflect on the collective trauma and bereavement we have faced. Mayor Glanville added: “Nothing will make losing someone any easier, but we need to get London talking about grief and bereavement, and work towards bereaved people having access to support that meets their particular needs when they need it.”