Computing the Sorrow
January 27. Boris Johnson says it is ‘hard to compute the sorrow’ after the official covid-19 death rate passes 100,000 in the UK.
In fact there is a perfectly simple calculation that can be made. Grief professionals work on the basis of at least five bereaved people for every death.* On current figures that gives us a population of half a million in the UK facing a lonely future. If we take the more accurate figure of those dying with covid-19 on their death certificates, the number is already 600,000. Globally there are now 2.21 million deaths, generating a population of over 11 million coming to terms with traumatic loss.
Estimating the length of the sorrow is a more difficult task. There seems to be an inverse ratio at work: the more rapid the event of dying, the more extended the process of grieving.
The struggle to come to terms with a loss begins more uncertainly and is likely to proceed more slowly than is the case for non-pandemic bereavements. In this sense Johnson was for once correct in his account. It will be a long time before we can take a measure of the suffering generated by a death rate that is the fifth highest in the world, and the second highest as a proportion of the population.
A recent review of the first tranche of academic papers on covid-19 bereavement summarises the difficulties facing the relatives of victims:
“There is sometimes little chance to say farewell in accustomed ways, or to observe cultural or religious mourning practices; there may be regrets or anger about the possible preventability of the death. A persisting difﬁculty has been noted: social isolation has brought with it the lack of physical support from family and friends or physically-present spiritual support, reﬂecting sometimes severe societal disruptions in general. Such distancing can intensify feelings of loneliness that is part of any bereavement experience, even without isolation orders in place.”
“In the face of such difﬁculties,” the paper concludes, “one might speculate that letting go, ﬁnding a place for the deceased in ongoing life, relinquishing the old ties/bonds and moving on may not be tasks that can yet be dealt with.”**
The established rituals of bereavement, whatever they may be, work on the basis of manageable numbers. Defoe’s account of the 1665 plague stands for every pandemic: “It is here, however, to be observ’d, that after the Funerals became so many, that People could not Toll the Bell, Mourn, or Weep, or wear Black for one another, as they did before, no, nor so much as make Coffins for those that died.”*** In our own event the pressures are compounded by regulations designed to prevent the spread of infection. No more than 30 socially distanced mourners can attend an English funeral, and only six can gather at the wake (but none in Wales and Scotland).
Every manual on bereavement stresses the importance of listening to those who are left alone, which becomes more difficult as physical encounters are limited. The comfort of touch is frequently out of reach. The small pleasures that can provide escape from the intensity of grief become unobtainable. Those whose lives have been shattered have difficulty occupying the centre of their own dramas when all around them are competing narratives of loss. The novelist and counsellor Rebecca Abrams, in a training seminar for Cruse, the leading bereavement charity, stresses how the young in particular, accustomed to talking through their crises with networks of friends, find it difficult to commence their mourning.****
There are compensating resources. There were already in existence a of range of organisations, including Marie Curie, Cruse, Sudden, The Loss Foundation, The Good Grief Trust, the Samaritans, Supportive Friends, with established bereavement methodologies and networks of volunteers, although most of their work has had to become virtual. Social networking more generally has never been as important, especially amongst the young who are already accustomed to working through their problems online.
Medical researchers are drawing attention to a bodily ‘long covid’, where a range of often serious conditions persist after the initial symptoms have been overcome. Amongst those who have lost people close to them, as well as health workers exposed to post-traumatic stress disorders, there is also going to be a long covid of the mind, which may in turn have further physical outcomes.
The army of the bereaved will be living amongst us for years to come, patching together their recovery as best they can.
*Julia Samuel, Grief Works. Stories of Life, Death and Surviving (London: Penguin Life, 2017), p. xii
**Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut, ‘Bereavement in Times of COVID-19: A Review and Theoretical Framework’, OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 82, 3 (2021): 500–522, 501.
*** Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722; London: Penguin, 2003), p. 164
****Rebecca Abrams and Cruse Clinical Director, Andy Langford, recorded as a webinar on 5 May 2020.https://www.cruse.org.uk/training/covid-19-different-kind-grief.