Covid Memorial Day: A worldwide moment to give our sorrow words

Covid memorial Day 1st jan 2021

Stefan Simanowitz

At the start of January 2020, Chinese officials sent a communication to the World Health Organisation informing them of a cluster of cases of “viral pneumonia of unknown cause” in Wuhan province.

One year – and nearly two million deaths – later, the world is still trying to come to terms with the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists have raced to find was to suppress and eradicate disease or protect populations with vaccines. Economies have battled to stay afloat amid shutdowns, lockdowns and furlough schemes. And we have struggled to come to terms with the horror and the death.

In Macbeth, when Malcom hears that MacDuff’s wife and children are dead he says, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

Today, COVID Memorial Day will be a worldwide moment to give our sorrow words.

Starting in New Zealand (GMT +12) and ending in Hawaii (GMT -12), people will mark #CovidMemorialDay with vigils, services and individual acts of remembrance.

People are invited to mark the day in whatever way feels right: lighting a candle, taking a pebble to a hilltop or simply sitting and thinking on those they have lost.

With so many of us touched by grief either directly or indirectly the day aims to tap into the healing power of collective grief and offer a moment t when we can all acknowledge and express our personal of loss as well as the share grief of so many others.

Whilst some nations have had national memorials – Spain for example had a 10-day remembrance period – there has been no global moment to share our collective pain.

Sparked by the recognition that, in the words of grief expert, David Kessler, “grief must be witnessed”, COVID Memorial Day was set up in the UK last summer. A coalition of different individuals, and groups working with bereaved families, NHS staff and older people, came together on 5 September to mark the 6 month anniversary of the death of the first Briton from Covid-19 with services and vigils.

In Britain and America, where COVID-19 has become inextricably entwined with politics, there has been no national moment to remember the dead. Indeed, in the US and UK, it sometimes feels as if the simple act of grieving has become political act.

But on Covid Memorial Day, people are asked to set aside politics: to take off their metaphorical gun belts before entering the saloon.

By allowing space to grieve, we allow ourselves to start to deal with an emotion that can turn into anger or depression if it is not expressed.

It is important to remember that grief is the flip side of love. If you have not loved, you cannot grieve, and the more you deeply you love, the more painful the grief. It is also vital to recognise that one does not recover from grief. If you are lucky, you heal from grief. But never completely. 

In many Western cultures the traditions and rituals of grieving have been almost entirely forgotten. We are not shown or taught how to deal with loss: our own or other people’s. Colleagues may send us a card but avoid eye contact in the corridor. The head of human resources tells us that they “know how we feel” as they sign us off for a week’s compassionate leave.

Watching the Love Actually this Christmas, I almost fell off my chair when Emma Thompson’s character offers advice to her brother, played by Liam Neeson, who has buried his wife the day before. “Get a grip,” she tells him. “People hate sissies. No one’s ever going to shag you if you cry all the time.”

Rather than steeling ourselves and keeping a stiff upper lip as generations were taught to do, we should allow ourselves to feel the loss. To feel the pain. To feel the grief. As one person wrote on the wall of remembrance at last September’s UK Covid Memorial Day service, held exactly six months after the first Briton had died of coronavirus:

“I will celebrate her, but before I can, celebrate her, I must remember her And before I can remember her, I must mourn her And if you see me – shivering and dumbed with loss – stand by me Because grief needs a witness.”

Stefan Simanowitz is the coordinator of Covid Memorial Day which will take place around the world on 1st January

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