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 claimed three quarters of a million military personnel.
According to Lucy Noakes, a professor of modern history at Essex university, of particular concern to the government at the time was the impact on morale of the volume of bodies and of constant funerals and burials (cremations were not commonplace at the time, though they now account for 80 per cent of services). With that in mind, mass funerals were sometimes organised not just to honour the dead, but to avoid the sapping emotional toll of individual ceremonies. Noakes’s research on bereavement during that period in Britain is revealing of how both world wars consolidated the idea of grief as something to be shouldered privately and stoically for the sake of wartime community morale. This was widely disseminated though newspapers, books, films and other forms of popular culture. Since grief, like other emotions, was assumed to be female territory, much of the messaging spread through women’s magazines. Noakes unearthed an agony aunt for Woman’s Own writing in 1940 that bereavement could “either broaden your nature, make you understand other people better, or turn you right inside yourself”—and suggested the first approach, perhaps achieved by offering service to those in need.
It is no coincidence that the bereavement charity Cruse was set up in 1959 by a group of widows still struggling in a stiff-upper-lip society. Not having the chance to process grief, we now know, can have physical and mental consequences. Andy Langford, clinical director at Cruse, says that today, factors such as quarantine and isolation, not being able to observe funeral rituals or have face-to-face conversations may complicate the mourning process. It’s potentially further compounded because coronavirus is for the most part inescapably public—it is discussed everywhere—while many are already dealing with the stresses of upheaval around jobs, livelihoods and staying healthy. “What’s really important is to prepare for it,” he says. “Make sure you are already linked in with people you trust and have regular contact on the phone, by text or on social media.” (Cruse has just issued new guidelines to help people dealing with bereavement during the coronavirus outbreak.)
Meanwhile, even secularists may find solace in the tradition of religious rituals—when they can take place—because tradition is repetition, and repetition means that time is passing as life continues. “These traditions exist, they have endured not less than 2,000 years, they have seen humankind through hard times and into futures that are different,” says Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism. “They embody resilience and just that is a part of why they are important.”
Staring into a fraught and uncertain future, which is forcing us to reckon with mortality and the fragility of life, we long for the soothing balm of an upside. Rabbi Wittenberg suggests it might lie in the way we are rethinking the world and our relationships with each other. “We appreciate life, it’s blessing, its beauty and its blossom—even if we can only see if from a window.”