A few years ago the late comedian Jeremy Hardy called me to apologise. Contemplating the loss of a parent, he concluded that he hadn’t been there for me, as a friend, after my father had died—because, until it happened to him, he hadn’t known how. I reminded him of our long conversations at the time—him, showing up. And we talked about how, sometimes, condolences have a pay-it-forward texture, taking on a different register once we’ve been through a bereavement. In early 2019, Jeremy died and the pain of grief that we had discussed years before struck again: desolate, heavy and empty.
I think about that conversation now because of the scale of loss we all as a society potentially face—and I wonder how collectively we’ll cope because, for so many of us, we haven’t had to know how.
Up until now, we have watched other countries, faraway, war-torn, disaster-struck places, dealing with unfathomable magnitudes of loss and grief and suffering. Until now, we’ve clung to the comforting idea that these things happen elsewhere, not here. Not to us.
But in the midst of a frightening global pandemic, while we all hope for the best, we must prepare for the possibility of something worse. Already the warnings are flooding in from Italy, as deaths are tragically mounting. Bodies from Bergamo, an overwhelmed city that cannot cope, have been sent to crematoria around the country. If we wish to, we can seek out the most granular and painful accounts of loss in Italy. One especially heart-wrenching detail, often repeated, of coronavirus fatalities is: “They die alone.” Quarantined and cut off from loved ones who have not been there to offer the comfort of their presence, words or touch—this is how swaths of Italy’s elderly are leaving this world and it seems a particular cruelty.
Not since the Second World War has Britain faced the prospect of bereavement on such a scale. At that time, officials over-prepared, anticipating that the human toll would be much worse. In 1937 government plans, which included the stockpiling of cardboard coffins, were made on the assumption there would be hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. In the event, over 60,000 British civilians—still an unimaginable toll—lost their lives, mostly in air raids, and mostly during the Blitz. That war also…