“Grief needs a witness” – One year after the first British Covid Death, is it time for a memorial?

covid memorial Day March 5th

On March 5, the BBC reported that a 70-year-old woman in the Royal Berkshire Hospital had become the first Briton to die of COVID-19.

Exactly one year – and tens of thousands of lives – it is time for a moment of shared reflection and collective grief.

Grief expert, David Kessler, says “grief must be witnessed” and warns that if not expressed, it can turn into depression or anger. As a nation confronted – directly or indirectly – by a year-long wave of suffering and death, there is certainly a great deal of depression and anger swilling around.

Britain remains one of the only countries to have had large numbers of COVID-19 deaths, not held a national memorial. Spain, for example, had a 10-day period of remembrance period and, in January, the first thing that Joe Biden did was to hold a national Covid Memorial Day. “In order to heal we must remember,” he said, speaking in front of the Reflecting Pool illuminated by hundreds of flickering candles. The reaction of one American man after the event summed it up: “I hadn’t realised just how much I’d needed that,” he wrote.

On Monday, mayors in more than 100 cities across America proclaimed the first Monday in March Covid Memorial Day, marking it with vigils and calling on the President to instate this date as national holiday. Joe Biden, who has clearly recognised his role as “Mourner-In-Chief”, might agree to it.

Yet in the last year – apart from clapping for carers – the only opportunity Britons have been given to come together for any form of collective mourning was in June marking those who fell in D-Day and last month, for the death of Captain Tom.

Numbed by sheer numbers of dead, it is easy to forget how we felt last March as our country prepared to lockdown and the daily death toll was headline news. On the day lockdown was announced, there had been 55 deaths. Yesterday’s death toll of 315 hardly got a media mention.

From the very start of the pandemic – everything about Britain’s response and coronavirus strategy became inextricably entwined with politics. As a result, the simple act of grieving the dead has become almost a political act.

Yet grief knows nothing of politics. It has no colours.

It is for that reason that Covid Memorial Day – a unofficial day of remembrance – has been designated a “politics free zone”. Like a saloon in a Western where everybody has to take off their gun-belts if they want to come in, political views will be banned. Afterall, it doesn’t matter whether you are Piers Morgan or Piers Corbyn, we all still feel the same need to grieve.

Shakespeare says. “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers o’er-fraught heart and bids it break” and Covid Memorial Day is intended give words to our sorrow.

Yet grief isn’t all about sorrow.

You can only experience grief if you’ve experienced love. Indeed, grief is the collateral damage of love. The more deeply you love, the more painful the grief.

Unlike our Southern European neighbours, ,most traditions and rituals of grieving have been lost in Britain. We are even not shown or taught the basics of how to deal with loss – our own or other people’s. In adult life, friends feel awkward, colleagues may send us a card but avoid eye contact in the corridor and the head of human resources tells us that they “know how we feel” as they sign us off for two weeks’ compassionate leave. But grief doesn’t work like that.

It needs to take its path.

One doesn’t truly recover from loss. If you are lucky, you will heal from loss. But never completely.

“Over the last year many of us have been touched by grief either directly or indirectly,” says psychologist, Jo Hemmings. “Whilst a single day of mourning will not set everything right, but it is remarkable what grieving, and in particular collective grief, can achieve. 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.”

“As we see light at the end of the tunnel, all of us can provide a light in the darkness this Covid Memorial Day,” said Dr Philippa Whitford MP.

As we mark this sombre anniversary, I’m reminded of a message left on the wall of remembrance at a service marking six months since the first UK COVID-19 death.

“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 coordinator of Covid Memorial Day

For more information visit www.covidmemorialday.org.uk