from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: A day we shall remember

May 3, 2021

I will remember the last day of April, 2021.

Our gardener arrived early to work with us. My husband spent time cutting down branches overhanging the road, working with a chainsaw and piling up wood for our fires. We anticipate the arrival of the winter rains and have been planting indigenous plants to take advantage of the last days of warmth before the earth gets cold. Digging planting holes requires considerable effort as the earth on this hillside consists of layers of shale.

After a long day, we went to a music recital: ‘Botanica Lumina – Enchanted’, in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany (1881) located within our Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

To get to the Museum, we had to walk through the Botanic Gardens, which are usually locked at sunset. Towering fig trees line the entrance avenue. We could hear possums with their aggressive hisses and the squealing of the grey-headed flying foxes that have found a safe roost in our gardens.

Paul Haydock-Wilson – Wikicommons. Museum of Economic Botany

Adelaide is fortunate in having a rare remaining artefact of the past: a Museum of Economic Botany – the last one in the world. ‘Economic botany, simply put, is the study of plants through the perspective of their practical use for humankind.’ Our museum was lucky to escape redevelopment as some bright sparks wanted to convert the building into a wedding venue.

Fungi models made from paper mâché

The hall is filled with fascinating displays of fruit, fungi made out of painted paper mâché, wood samples and native artefacts. These exhibits were once used to educate students and the non-scientifically trained public about valuable and useful plants.

The Museum was restored to its former glory in 2008. Due to the space restrictions and distancing requirements, our audience was now limited to 30. Pairs of chairs were placed at 1.5 m intervals in the narrow corridor between the banks of display cabinets. The hall is visually delightful. You can sit and gaze at the gold and white patterns of the ceiling high above you, even more delightful when you are listening to music. The whole space is filled with light.

Beautiful Dreamer by Stephen Foster

There were only two musicians, Celia Craig, an oboist, and Michael Ierace, a pianist. Celia told us that she appreciated the acoustics of the lofty Museum. The two musicians played a series of popular and classical pieces for about an hour and a half.

However, the overwhelming reason I will remember the 30th of April is that today, before sunrise, my good friend’s daughter died. A month short of her 39 th birthday.

Tammy did not die of Covid-19 but cancer.  In a perfect world, our children would survive us. We move towards old age with the joy of children and grandchildren, looking towards their futures, the hope of a good life for them – maybe a better one than ours. Our ageing and our death we learn to accept. To lose a child is against the natural order.

Tammy was a shining light to all who knew her: a dedicated language teacher, tennis player, weekend quiz expert, beer not wine drinker, bridge player and a Lego enthusiast. Her beauty and her smile lit up every room. She faced her long, painful illness with fortitude. Such bravery comes from deep within. None of us knows how we will deal with such a difficult passage at the end.

Deeply loved daughter, sister, niece, aunt, teacher and friend to many. RIP Tammy.

‘Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day,
Lull’d by the moonlight have all passed away!

From Nike in Katerini, Greece: Golgotha

January 28, 2021.

Nike in Katerini, Greece

“Ahead of us is Golgotha.”

That’s what the news reader said last night. Golgotha. The hill upon which Christ was crucified. It’s the term Greeks use for a difficult journey. The journey is the year ahead. I would rather refer to this as our Odyssey. At least after the Odyssey ended, Odysseus was home again on Ithika with his beloved wife and family, safe and sound, Back to all that was familiar. On Golgotha there was just suffering and death.

Speaking of death, my father died a couple of months ago. It was not a tragic death. He was almost 93 years old and had well and truly lived his own Odyssey. The tragedy was that he died during this pandemic and only eight people were permitted to attend his funeral.

I still have no idea when I can return home to Australia. They’ve done such a magnificent job there but then they’re in such a unique position with their geographical isolation they could simply shut the borders. Also I believe the Australian lifestyle contributes to its success with Covid as well. I wonder if my fellow Australian citizens would agree with me. We tend to stay out of peoples business. Many of us go into our homes at night and don’t leave again till the morning. The once sacred ritual of morning or afternoon tea has almost disappeared. We simply don’t invite many people over and most of us don’t even know many of our neighbours names. Here in Greece it’s a completely different story. Life is lived outside – hail, sleet, snow, wind, rain or shine. Everybody knows everybody’s business. It’s the law almost.

People always go out. The lifestyle has been built around it, making people stop in the middle of the day to go home and have a nap so they can go out again. In Australia the first question someone asks you is – what do you do? In Greece the first question someone asks you is – whose child are you? Everybody knows who you are, what you’re doing there and what your background is and if they don’t know they will stop you to find out, many, many times till the whole neighbourhood knows exactly who they are dealing with.

Still speaking of death, I’ve discovered something since the passing of my father. He feared death more than anything. I once caught him praying to God to keep him alive, not for any noble reason such as to live to see a certain event or to achieve a certain goal but just to keep existing. The saga of his illness, his weaknesses, his dramatic decline and the intensive care he required – all administered by me – is a huge story itself. I’ll just go straight to the end and the moment I found him in his bed. He’d passed away in his sleep. The look on his face was of sheer wonderment. It was so beautiful all I could do was sit next to him and gaze upon him for several minutes. His wrinkles had gone and he looked young and handsome and happy. He died looking at something beautiful. Again, it’s so much to go into and it’s not appropriate on a forum for Covid 19 I suppose but the point I’m making is it made me not fear death. Let’s just say there were some experiences I felt and saw that made this cynical nonbeliever realise there is another dimension and it’s not a bad place.

I now know what we must fear and act against – is illness.

Death is not hell, illness is. When there is someone ill in the family the entire family get sick with them – in one way or another. Again that’s a whole other huge story but I think you all know what I mean.

I know there are so many other things to fear and act upon such as fighting for equality and preserving our environment and all that but taking care of our personal health and being responsible for our actions is the single greatest thing we can do for our family, our community and our planet. A healthy world needs healthy people. Other than non-Covid illness and accidents, take care everyone.

Here in Greece wearing a mask is not questioned any more – it’s just a fact. I’m developing a mask wardrobe. I have a nice leopard print one too! Boutiques are selling glamorous sequinned ones for night time – not that we can go anywhere yet.

However, the government made one significant step last week. Shops were permitted to open. Cafes and restaurants are still not permitted to operate normally but the shops opened up. They did declare it an experiment because people were becoming stir crazy after so much strict lockdown. We are still under curfew, no one is allowed out after 9 pm, but we can go shopping.

We are all very nervous about it though. Before the shops opened our daily case count was sitting at around 500. It dropped to low as 250 a few days ago for the last couple of days it’s gone up to 800 to 850. Tonight’s numbers might change everything again. We fear having to enter a third lockdown so much that I must say we are all super careful. You no longer see anyone unmasked on the streets and the shops have people at the door to ensure distancing is adhered to. There are no longer any arguments or declarations of lack of rights. Everyone now realises we are all responsible for each other.

So my friends I don’t think this forum is over. We still have our Golgotha to climb, our Odyssey to travel. Fortunately we live in this age with such technology and the ability to communicate and advanced medical treatments. It’s nowhere near as bad as our poor ancestors had to endure back in 1918.

It’s time for me to go out now. I’m masked up and I’m going to buy cod roe to make taramasalata, the real stuff not that pink dyed stuff you buy in plastic tubs.

How is everyone doing? Be great to hear updates from everyone else on how good or not good the situation is where they are.

Yia sou

Do you know what that means?

Yia sou? It’s the traditional Greek greeting for hello and goodbye and yelled out joyously before taking a drink. Yia sou is short for Στην υγειά σου. To your health. Stay healthy, look after your health, go in health, health is everything – all those cliches, but one thing I know is when you’re healthy you can do anything and everything, make money, make love, travel, explore, experiment, experience. When you’re not healthy you can’t do anything.

Στην υγειά σας.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: On Death and Dying

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Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

January 20.  Last Sunday, my friend and colleague John Naughton, in his endlessly wise and informative daily blog, Memex1.1, appropriated the Kübler-Ross five stages of dying model in order to frame a coruscating attack on the political mismanagement of the pandemic both here and in the United States.

He addressed Denial, Anger, Bargaining and Depression, concluding with Acceptance:

“We’re nowhere near that yet. People still haven’t grasped that there’s no going back to the way we were. That past is indeed a different country. It’s also a country that was heading straight for climate catastrophe. So every time someone talks about a “return to growth” you know that the reality of what lies ahead hasn’t yet been appreciated. The only kind of growth worth having post-pandemic is a greener, carbon-neutral one. And the only question worth asking is: could we create such a future?”

The piece caused me to take down from my shelves the original, enormously influential book, On Death and Dying.  Since its publication over half a century ago, the notion and labelling of the five stages has been the subject of widespread debate.  The hospice movement, which Kübler-Ross did so much to inspire, no longer uses them.  But re-reading the text highlighted some basic truths about dying in the pandemic.

Kübler-Ross’s opening premise was that “dying nowadays is more gruesome in many ways, namely, more lonely, mechanical and dehumanized.” (p. 21)*  Despite the major improvements in palliative care since 1969, the technologies of medical intervention have become still more impersonal, the patient yet more subordinated to the authority of doctors and the routines of hospitals.

Her insistence that fear of death can only be effectively countered if the issue is explicitly considered  by those not yet dying, remains entirely valid. “It might be helpful” she writes, “if more people would talk about death and dying as an intrinsic part of life just as they do not hesitate to mention when someone is expecting a new baby.” (p. 150)  A beneficial outcome of the pandemic tragedies may be a new era of public engagement with what in most social settings remains an unvisited land.

However debatable the particular issue of ‘stages’, there can be no questioning Kübler-Ross’s central premise that it is the responsibility of all those working with the dying to be informed, caring listeners and that the reactions of those enduring a terminal illness are in their different ways rational and comprehensible.

The departure from the present crisis lies in the context of how this listening takes place.  The book begins by listing the changes that separate modern medicine from the past, including significant therapeutic interventions, increasing life expectancy, and the absence of pandemics.  The return of mass infection and death has fundamentally altered a basic assumption of the book.  “If a patient has had enough time”, Kübler-Ross writes, “(i.e., not a sudden, unexpected death) and has been given some help in working through the previously described stages, he will reach a stage during which he is neither depressed nor angry about his ‘fate.’” (p. 123).

The whole enterprise assumes the resources of a well-found (American) hospital, with teams of professionals including not only doctors and nurses but psychiatrists, social workers and chaplains, ready and able to spend long periods communicating with the patients as their disease takes its course over months or years.

The essence of dying with Covid-19 is that neither patients, nor their families, nor the staff of hospitals or hospices have remotely enough time to work through any sequence of emotional expression or support.  The common experience of those who are infected is for little to happen for the first few days, and then for the unlucky minority there is a sudden descent into breathlessness and other symptoms which leads rapidly to an intensive care unit.  Even if they ultimately survive the mechanical ventilators, they will have been unconscious throughout that part of their treatment.  Hospital staff are overwhelmed by the sheer pressure of numbers, radically reducing staff/patient ratios whilst at the same time trying to stand in for the presence of next of kin excluded by quarantine regulations.

It is the absence time for death and dying which more than the pathogens and the remedies most connects the Covid-19 pandemic with the flu and plague outbreaks that preceded it down the centuries.

Those on the front line have not given up on the challenge.  In the collection of radio podcasts, Letters from Lockdown (broadcast by the BBC PM programme), there is a particularly fine piece by a doctor which focuses on the multiple uses of her mobile phone.  It gets used to keep in touch at speed with staff around the hospital, to take pictures of the property bags of deceased patients, to relieve stress by playing music when in bed after an exhausting shift, and to provide at least a small window of communication to dying patients:

“my phone has been placed next to an old lady’s ear, on her pillow as she drifts into unconsciousness, breathing with shallow, irregular gasps, with hopes and promises  from her daughter, hoping that her mum will be able to hear her final words of love, even though she can’t be there to say them.”**

*Kübler-Ross extracts from: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (1969: New York: Touchstone, 1997).

**Dr. Lisa Linpower, ‘Through My Phone’, Letters from Lockdown (London, Chatto and Windus, 2020), p. 171.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Staying alive

June 10.  If we are to learn the right lessons from the pandemic, it is crucial that we are careful with the meaning of words.

Monday’s Guardian carried a disturbing headline: ‘Epidemic of Loneliness’.*  This was a phrase much deployed in the public debate about loneliness in the years leading up to the present crisis.  It had two sets of meanings.

The first was a general metaphor.  It just meant that loneliness was a large and negative event.  If we say that someone received in an ‘avalanche of complaints’ we do not mean literally that they were covered in a mountain of rocks, just that they experienced a lot of trouble.

The second was more serious.  It was at the centre of an attempt to medicalise a social condition.  linking the experience to other crises such as smoking and obesity.  By this means the effect was dramatized, and campaigners hoped to appropriate longstanding concerns with major public health issues.

Critics were concerned about this use of language.  Whatever it is, loneliness cannot be caught by someone breathing on you.  It seemed an inappropriate descriptor before the present crisis, and now it would appear indefensible.

But in the Guardian, no less an authority than Professor Martin Marshall, President of the Royal College of General Practitioners, was cited as saying:  ‘The Covid-19 pandemic is also creating an epidemic of loneliness, not just for older people, and sadly there are some people who will fall through the net.’

The story was actually about the tragic discovery of individuals who had died alone, either of Covid 19 or of another condition for which in their lockdown they had failed to seek treatment.  A pathologist cheerfully described them as ‘decomps’, ‘people found dead at home after not being heard from for a couple of weeks.’

There are many ways in which ill health can be exacerbated by the experience of enforced and unwelcome solitude.  It is known that those living alone are less likely to seek medical assistance, even in normal times.  Associated forms of depression, or melancholy as it was once termed, can lower immune systems and increase vulnerability to a range of serious illnesses.  Conversely, various kinds of disability can have the effect of turning chosen solitude into an imprisoning loneliness. 

It might be expected that these interactions will increase the incidence and danger of loneliness in the present crisis, although there remains little quantitative evidence that this is happening on a significant scale.  The Office for National Statistics yesterday published its latest report on the experience of coronavirus in which it confirmed that the numbers ‘feeling lonely often / always’ in the lockdown remained at 5%.  As in earlier surveys, the old seemed more resistent to this condition than the young.**

With the total UK death rate now passing sixty thousand, lives will have been lost in every kind of social setting.  The evidence so far suggests that locked-down interiors, whether care homes or private residences, present the greater risk.  A recent Wall Street Journal analysis of the US population found that the virus had spread more widely in the most crowded households, irrespective of population density.***  .

When the final calculations are made, it is likely that those dying alone because they are alone will be far exceeded by those dying in company because they are in company.  Solitude has its compensations, and staying alive may be one of them

* Guardian, 8 June, 2020.

* Source: ONS survey of adults aged 16+, 3 April to 3 May.  https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandlonelinessgreatbritain/3aprilto3may2020

*** Ian Lovett, Dan Frosch and Paul Overberg, ‘Covid-19 Stalks Large Families in Rural America’, Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2022.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK. What we might have done …

May 4. All of us, especially those in complete lockdown, spend quality time wondering what we might have done when we had the chance to do it.

In Britain we had perhaps six to eight weeks when we knew that coronavirus was not something that just happened in far away countries.  We had a week to ten days when it was clear that an imposed lockdown was coming.  What use did we make of this precious time?

Visiting the hairdresser is so obvious and so universal (except for those no longer burdened with a thatch) that it is not worth mentioning.  A friend sent us a cartoon.  A sex worker is leaning through a car window.  ‘I’ll do anything you want for £50.’  A voice from inside the car: ‘Do you cut hair?’

For us the major regret was not attending a family celebration of my wife’s birthday in London.  As it happened this was arranged for March 14, just over a week before the closure.  My wife and I were still considering that we might travel when we received fierce instruction from each of our children.  They addressed us much as we did them in the most irresponsible phase of their adolescence: ‘What you are proposing to do represents an unnecessary threat to your health and wellbeing.  We have a duty of care towards you, and you will do as we say.’ Thus, the tables were turned, perhaps for good.

Since then, the risk register has evolved.  Dying has become one of the activities to get through before the shut-down.  On Sunday we had a grocery delivery, and fell to talking (at a safe distance) to the man who had pushed the trolley up the drive.  He said that he had lately lost his father.  We sympathised with his coronavirus suffering, but he explained that his father had died, much to his relief, just before the outbreak.  He had been in and out of hospital for a year and would have hated to have his treatment sidelined by the pandemic.  His family had been with him during his final hours.  And they had a good funeral (he also explained the difficulty of arranging it in the midst of severe flooding in our area, but that is now a forgotten story).

The last funeral that I attended myself before the crisis was of a cousin.  He too had been undergoing hospital treatment for a year.  He too died in the company of his wife and children.  He too had a great send-off, at which his grandchildren and a university colleague spoke movingly of his life. 

The widespread stories of final hours being spent only in the company of medical staff, of tight restrictions on attendance at funerals, of cancer appointments falling by three quarters, of cancelled treatments for a host of serious conditions, reinforce the tale told by the delivery man.  For those who still have time ahead of us, better of course to stand and take our chance.  But for those for whom the grim reaper was already at the door, better he entered before all this happened.   

From Eileen in Spain – Death during the Lockdown

Before the lockdown Spain has always buried their dead very quickly. The time between death and the funeral is usually 48 hours. This tradition maybe due to the 800 year Moorish occupation or that the temperatures in southern Spain can be very high.

Last week my husband passed away during the night. Within 2 hours of death the doctor had confirmed the situation and the undertaker had taken him with away.

The next morning on getting the death certificate the undertaker informed me that they were going to have to cremate him at 4pm the same day and I could come with 3 people and they would deliver the ashes to my home the next morning.

That was another shock.

However, I found the strength to email with the help of others most of his friends and family including nearly everyone living on our resort. We asked everyone at 4pm to stop say a prayer then raise a glass to my husband Alan.

I prepared a table of remembrance with his photo, candle, slippers, wedding ring, railway magazine called “The Oily Rag” and a Fulham Football souvenir. I found on the internet a list of funeral prayers and appropriate funeral music on Youtube. Then crying my eyes out I held the funeral for half an hour.

I did not want this lockdown to prevent me sending off my husband without a prayer and au revoir.

Since then I have encountered so much love from people I know.

As it is very difficult to obtain sympathy cards in Spain I have received about 50 handmade cards expressing sympathy. People went to so much trouble in this time of isolation, hand painting beautiful flowers, with wonderful calligraphy and verses.

This is truly the time when you really miss human contact.

Death comes close, by John Fielden, Tadcaster, UK

Kirkby Wharfe church

Until this week the daily casualties from the virus did not strike home. Now however we have experienced two deaths.  One was the mother of my son in law who died in hospital in Scotland after a serious operation; the other was the brother of my son’s godmother, who caught Covid 19 (as did his wife) and died later in hospital in Guildford, mourned by many of the staff, as he was a governor of the trust.

My son in law’s experience in arranging a funeral must be common for many.  First of course a church service was impossible, so he hunted around in Scotland for a crematorium that would take family and mourners at the service.  Finally he settled on Perth which allows up to 10 people.  Near me in Yorkshire both York and Leeds councils do not allow any family at all at their crematoria and grieving relatives must go to Halifax.

This afternoon a short half hour service was streamed live from the Perth crematorium and 58 people including us tuned in to watch.  A wonderful clergyman (a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland) with a soft Scottish voice led the service, while family members read a psalm and a lesson and my son in law gave a moving tribute to his mother. Recorded music from a choir and a Royal Marines band provided the start and finish of proceedings.  The whole experience was very moving and as close to the real thing as could be done – a triumph for technology – for a change!

Kirkby Wharfe church – interior

Having finished watching the service I strolled in the lovely sunlight along our village green to our 12th century late Norman church a hundred yards away.  Sitting there inside in the cool with sunlight shafting through the stained glass windows was a fitting coda to the afternoon.  For 870 years this lovely church has given comfort to villagers at times of plague, civil war and pestilence.  Now the church authorities or Magisterium have decreed no-one can enter. How lucky I am that, as church treasurer, I have a key that allows me to break this crazy rule.

http://www.stmarystadcaster.co.uk/a-tour-of-st-johns-kirkby-wharfe.html.