‘It’s like being in a war with an invisible enemy’: A document analysis of bereavement due to COVID-19 in UK newspapers

Ryann Sowden, Erica Borgstrom, Lucy E Selman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)
106 Downloads (Pure)


The COVID-19 pandemic has been followed intensely by the global news media, with deaths and bereavement a major focus. The media reflect and reinforce cultural conventions and sense-making, offering a lens which shapes personal experiences and attitudes. How COVID-19 bereavement is reported therefore has important societal implications. We aimed to explore the reportage and portrayal of COVID-19 related bereavement in the top seven most-read British online newspapers during two week-long periods in March and April 2020. We conducted a qualitative document analysis of all articles that described grief or bereavement after a death from COVID-19. Analysis of 55 articles was informed by critical discourse analysis and Terror Management Theory, which describes a psychological conflict arising between the realisation that death is inevitable and largely unpredictable and the human need for self-preservation. We identified three main narratives: (1) fear of an uncontrollable, unknown new virus and its uncertain consequences—associated with sensationalist language and a sense of helplessness and confusion; (2) managing uncertainty and fear via prediction of the future and calls for behaviour change, associated with use of war metaphors; and (3) mourning and loss narratives that paid respect to the deceased and gave voice to grief, associated with euphemistic or glorifying language (‘passed away’, ‘heroes’). Accounts of death and grief were largely homogenous, with bereavement due to COVID-19 presented as a series of tragedies, and there was limited practical advice about what to do if a loved one became seriously ill or died. Reporting reflected the tension between focusing on existential threat and the need to retreat from or attempt to control that threat. While the impact of this reporting on the public is unknown, a more nuanced approach is recommended to better support those bereaved by COVID-19.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0247904
Number of pages16
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2021

Structured keywords

  • Covid19


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