Give sorrow words: Americans come together to grieve those lost to COVID-19

We join with Americans as they come together to grieve those lost to COVID-19

Today (19th Jan), on the eve of his inauguration, Joe Biden will lead a service for the more than 400,000 American lives lost to the coronavirus. The lighting ceremony beside the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial will culminate with a “national moment of unity and remembrance” and bells will toll across US.

For one day, the people of America will not just be united in states, they will also be united in grief.

“In the midst of a pandemic – when so many Americans are grieving the loss of family, friends, and neighbors —-it is important that we honor those who have died,” said Inauguration Committee spokesman Pili Tobar said in a statement.

This official recognition that – in the words of bereavement expert – David Kessler, “grief must be witnessed”, is an important one.

Whilst some nations have had national memorials – Spain for example had a 10-day remembrance period – this will be the first moment that Americans have come together to share their collective pain. Indeed, in some countries, where COVID-19 has become highly politicised, it sometimes feels that the simple of grieving has become a political act.

But grief has no political colours.

Our world has changed so much that it is sometimes hard to believe that it has been just one year since Chinese officials informed the World Health Organisation of a cluster of cases of “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan province.

Nearly two million global deaths on, we are only just beginning to really come to terms with the pandemic. Scientists have raced to find ways to eradicate the disease or protect populations with vaccines. Economies have battled to stay afloat amid shutdowns, lockdowns and furlough schemes. And we have all been confronted – whether directly or indirectly – by a wave of suffering and 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-fraught heart and bids it break.” It is hoped that Covid Memorial Day will be a moment for Americans to give words to their sorrow.

And yet grief isn’t all about sorrow.

It is important to remember that grief is the flip side of love. The more you deeply you love, the more painful the grief and unless it is processed, grief can quickly turn into anger or depression.

Indeed, there has been no shortage of anger, depression and political acrimony in America over the last year. But Covid Memorial Day is an entirely non-political event. It is like a saloon in a Western, where everyone has to remove off their gun belts before then can enter.

Whilst it is clear that a single day of mourning will not set everything right, it is remarkable what grieving and in particular – collective grief – can do.

“Over the last year many of us have been touched by grief either directly or indirectly and collective grieving is important,” behavioural psychologist, Jo Hemmings tells me. “Covid Memorial Day is a day when people can light a candle, take a pebble to the top of a hill or simply sit and reflect on they have lost.”

COVID Memorial Day was originally set up in the UK last summer to mark the six-month anniversary of the death of the first Briton from COVID-19. There were services and vigils and the success led to a global Covid Memorial Day marked on 1 January.

By allowing space to grieve, we allow ourselves to start to deal with an emotion that takes time to process.

In some Western cultures many of the traditions and rituals of grieving have been lost. 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 two week’s compassionate leave.

But the grieving process doesn’t work like that. One doesn’t recover from grief. If you are lucky, you heal from grief. But never completely.

As well as watching the proceedings from Washington, people in the US are invited to mark the day by lighting a candle, taking a pebble to a hilltop or simply sitting and thinking on those they have lost.

All of us around the world, can also take a moment to reflect on the sorrow and to allow ourselves to feel the loss.

On 5 September, marking 6-month since the first Briton died of COVID-19, we held a memorial service for the bereaved in a London chapel. One person wrote a note on the wall of remembrance:

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

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and founder of

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UK #CovidMemorialDay was held on 5 September (6 months after the first COVID death) with vigils and services around the country. will be a bigger Covid Memorial Day UK on 5 March to mark one year since the first COVID death in Britain. There are also plans for a Covid Memorial Garden in London, a Covid Memorial Statue and a Covid Memorial Quilt