Today, on the eve of his inauguration, Joe Biden will lead a service for the more than 400,000 people in the USA who have lost their lives to COVID-19.
The lighting ceremony beside the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC will culminate with a “national moment of unity and remembrance” and bells will toll across the United States.
“In the midst of a pandemic – when so many Americans are grieving the loss of family, friends, and neighbours – it is important that we honour those who have died,” Inauguration Committee spokesman Pili Tobar said in a statement.
This official recognition by the Biden administration that “grief must be witnessed” – in the words of bereavement expert David Kessler – is an important one.
Whilst some nations have held national memorials – Spain, for example, had a 10-day remembrance period – this will be the first moment that people in the USA have come together to share their collective pain over the pandemic. Indeed, in some countries, where COVID-19 has been highly politicised, it sometimes feels that the simple act of grieving is a political one.
But grief should have no political colours.
The world has changed so drastically 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.
After two million global deaths, we are only just beginning to fight back against the disease. Scientists have raced to find ways to eradicate it and protect populations with vaccines. Economies have battled to stay afloat amid lockdowns and furlough schemes. And we have all been confronted – whether directly or indirectly – by a wave of suffering and death.
In Shakespeare’s 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 today’s memorial will be a moment for people in the USA to give words to their sorrow. Yet grief isn’t all about sorrow.
It is important to remember that grief is the collateral damage of love. The more deeply one loves, the more painful the grief and – unless it is processed – grief can quickly turn into anger or depression.
There has been no shortage of anger, depression and political acrimony in the USA over the past year. In contrast, today’s memorial is akin to a saloon in a Western, where everyone has to remove their gun belts before then can enter.
It is clear that a single day of mourning will not set everything right, but it is remarkable what grieving, and in particular collective grief, can achieve.
“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 says. “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 those 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 the disease – inspiring a global COVID Memorial Day on 1 January.
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 weeks’ compassionate leave – with little other support.
But grieving doesn’t work like that. One doesn’t truly recover from loss. If you are lucky, you will heal from loss. But never completely.
On 5 September, marking six months since the first person in the UK died of COVID-19, a memorial service was held for the bereaved in a London chapel. One person wrote 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.”