I recently attended a memorial service for a near neighbour who died at the age of 89.
I discovered she had a fascinating life full of unusual twists and turns which she’d lived it very much on her own terms, neither bowing to convention nor to the will of others. I was privileged to know her a little in her older years but what I learned in the one-hour service was more than enough to fill a novel or two.
The lady in question was born a real-life princess – which few of us knew – and later chose to give up the title. She had left her homeland and moved continents and the title was, she decided, not appropriate.
Over the years, I learned, she had many different roles, both voluntary and professional.
She was an artist and a sculptor who had exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Show and won a best in show accolade from the famously fierce and opinionated critic Brian Sewell.
She was also a traveller who had taken a daredevil camel-riding trip to Mongolia at the age of 60 – she’d enjoyed it so much she went back the next year to ride across the Gobi Desert on the famous Mongolian horses.
Nearer to home, our lady was a determined and successful supporter and friend of the local community and someone who was not afraid to speak out, even she felt the cause deserved it.
The church where our friend’s life journey was commemorated had its own impressive creative history. JMW Turner, who lived across the (Thames) water, painted some of his masterpieces from there; William Blake, the writer of Jerusalem was married there and James Whistler, too, ventured south of the river when he worked on his Thames paintings. There was a true feeling of community, of all of us getting together to celebrate a life and to send her off with love.
What I found particularly poignant was that this service was so different from the last I attended, in lockdown. That was for a friend of a similar age but whose funeral I watched from afar because of the obligatory 15-or-so people only allowed to attend in person. I knew this friend well and was so sorry not to be able to be there to support his wife and family with my presence. The service was beautiful and I had a bird’s eye view of the occasion but I was still removed, still physically outside the gathering and painfully aware of it.
My own recent experience allowed me to be a full on, in-person witness to the extraordinary but timeless event where family and friends grieve for their dear departed. I could feel the emotion at the tremor in a son’s voice as he described his mother. A member of the congregation ceased his powerful singing as he wiped the tears from his eyes while the sound of a young grandson reading a beautiful verse of scripture brought tears to my eyes. It was a privilege to be present with a family in mourning as they honoured their mother with such a loving farewell.
This is what many of us missed during Covid. I had clients and friends who lost loved ones during that period, and they tell me the pain they are experiencing is not getting any better. It is hard to tell someone that they will get through it in time when they insist their grief is not lessening.
A study into people who suffered a bereavement during the first two waves of Covid seems to bear this out. The research, by Cardiff and Bristol universities, says those people are three times more likely to have prolonged grief disorder than those who were bereaved in “normal” times.
The study, believed to be the first of its kind, found three in 10 people who lost loved ones between March 2020 and January 2021 were suffering intensely two years after the death. This condition is described as prolonged grief disorder – also known as complicated grief – and usually applied to those who have intense emotional pain and trouble connecting with friends or planning for the future, for longer than six months after their loss.
PGD is known to be triggered by traumatic deaths, social isolation and being cut off from the person who died. That description fits with so many people’s experiences of loss during the Covid period (beginning officially from 23 March 2020 and petering out towards the end of 2022) when the trauma of the loss of a loved one was compounded by the inability to be present at the end of that loved one’s life.
What really surprises me is that anyone could imagine that saying goodbye to a loved one via a heavily PPE’d up professional holding an iPad was ever going to make it all right for those people left behind. How can you grieve and start to repair your own life when you are trapped in such an unbelievable bubble? Even if you saw the logic of it then, it’s hard, with hindsight, to be so convinced.
A person I know who has been having therapy since the death of their parent during Covid told me about this study. They were in part relieved to discover there was a reason they remained distraught and in part enraged that no-one should have considered all these possible future repercussions when first discussing lockdown.
And it is not only the bereaved who suffered. There were small children starting to talk who lost their words, as well as the teenagers who missed out from attending school and socialising with their peers. And what about the adults and worker bees? We, too, have suffered and are still not back to where we once were.
More recently, reading about what might happen in another pandemic, I get the sense the powers that be are sounding us out about our attitude to lockdown and whether we could manage it again if need be.
As a counsellor and an adult human being, I sincerely hope we never go down that disastrous again. It didn’t work then, it wouldn’t work now. Let’s not even consider it.