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25 March 2022

Lucy Easthope reflects on life after catastrophe

The author reveals how the way we recover from disaster goes to the heart of what it means to be human

By Rowan Williams

How we cope with loss has lately become a more complex and urgent question than we might have thought ten or 20 years ago. It isn’t that everyone has suddenly realised that we are mortal and that death divides us; but the middling-comfortable culture of the Nineties has been through a dizzying series of “bereavements” that have narrowed the gap between the secure and the insecure in our chronically unequal world. The 9/11 attacks, the “war on terror” and the continuing shadow of terrorist atrocity on our streets; the upsurge of populism and xenophobia, woven in with the colossal expansion in the numbers of displaced people across the globe; the dramatic evacuation of proportion, generosity and candour from a great deal of political life; the exposure of continuing systemic racial injustice that we had preferred not to notice. And then the pandemic: the grief of enforced isolation and traumatic levels of literal bereavement, and the background ache of confusion, corruption and bluster at the level of leadership. And then the war in Ukraine, the ripping-up of hard-won protocols for conflict and the arrival of another enormous humanitarian crisis on our doorsteps in the shape of those fleeing the shameless brutality of a paranoid would-be superpower.

When the Dust Settles is not a grand cultural history; it is the memoir of a life spent tackling the most basic kinds of fallout from disaster, written with vividness and warmth. But – in the light of all these wider losses – its importance is more than this summary might suggest. Lucy Easthope does a brilliant job of explaining what it is like to be a professional respondent to catastrophe, the person whose skills are sought in the wake of all kinds of mass suffering, from tsunami to terrorist attack to Grenfell Tower. Those skills are both organisational – the practicalities of salvaging bodies and body parts; helping to coordinate resources for immediate relief – and pastoral: working out the basic human support needed by those most directly affected.

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It is a gruellingly demanding combination. We learn something about the detail of the aftermath from such events – the look and sound and smell of horrific tragedy, the pressure on relief workers, the difficulty of translating preparation for imagined contingencies into effective action. We learn how much planning there had been for a possible pandemic before 2020, and how sluggish and inept the response was when it happened. Easthope makes the provocative point that – contrary to the rhetoric we still hear – the Covid pandemic was “the most diligently planned-for risk in British history”. She is unsparing in her analysis of the way in which the UK government kicked the can down the road and failed to implement a properly supported quarantine and tracing policy of the kind that had been planned.

But part of the book’s importance is in its insightful exploration of what human beings need to preserve their resilience. Easthope is consistently interested in the long-term rebuilding of whatever habitat has been destroyed – the internal domain of feeling and memories as much as the external. She borrows an illuminating phrase about the “furniture of self” from the sociologist Kai Erikson, and the evocative Welsh word hiraeth to describe the yearning for a lost place where we know we are at home. Human beings are embedded in place and body, their humanity is shaped around things, sights and sounds, flesh and blood.

This is why it matters so much to know what you are doing when dealing with human remains that have been rendered unrecognisable in death, and the debris of personal effects that might be salvaged. There are moving pages about this, and about the challenges of finding out what bereaved parents want to see or hold or keep of what is left – as well as the dangers of trying (with the best will in the world) to “sanitise” such mementos. Easthope’s accounts of attending patiently and generously to what people are actually asking for, what they are discovering of what they want to hold on to, is exemplary and displays a painstaking sensitivity. Sometimes the bereaved want something that will speak of the damaged physical reality of the person they have lost: a medal that is battered and tarnished, not polished, a piece of clothing that has not been laundered, a smartphone with the last messages intact.

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Time after time, she insists on the need to avoid the temptation to tidy up prematurely. Traumatic loss and sudden death are real interruptions; they need time to be absorbed into a continuing story. Rushing this is an insult to both the dead and the bereaved.

All this difficult and imagination-stretching work underlines the conviction that we must be serious about our “furniture” and our “habitat”. To respect and love one another is a matter of finding meaning in the physical stuff of ourselves and our world. Our responses need to be as “layered” as the reality before us: “Disasters don’t happen in societal isolation,” Easthope writes: what looks like the same kind of catastrophe may be significantly different because of this.

This applies in individual as well as in collective contexts. In counterpoint to her narrative of professional involvement, Easthope tells us something of her own experience of loss, especially of successive miscarriages and the near-loss of her husband in an unexpected medical crisis. It is not only that these individual traumas have to be negotiated and endured in the midst of an unremitting programme of work; it is also that the lessons learned in both contexts overlap and illuminate one another.

Salvaging her husband’s bloodstained clothes from a hospital bin is all of a piece with recognising how people want a physical connection with a dead person they have loved. The lifeless clinical jargon that describes what is left of a miscarried foetus as “the retained products of conception” tells us that something is deeply amiss with the world-view of a medical establishment eager to sideline the humanity of an unborn child – once again, for understandable and even compassionate reasons. Whether or not you have a clear metaphysical view of the foetus as a person, it should be possible to grant that “products of conception” is a chilling and reductive way to speak of what has lived in the womb.

Bodies matter, matter matters; we should be on the watch for all those pressures that tempt us to shortcuts and sticking-plaster solutions to the pain of real physical parting – whether it be the loss of an unborn child, or the death of a son or daughter in combat.

The profound humanity of the book is especially clear in the concluding reflections on the pandemic: sober, warning, encouraging. Easthope is troubled by the way in which the pandemic response has been so governed by fear – not only fear of the virus but fear of one another. “The place that we find ourselves,” she writes, “is spectrum-opposite from that on which a healthy recovery is built,” because we have become inured to fear as our default setting, with all that goes with it in terms of “shame, stigma and threat” in so much official messaging. Given that pandemics have so often been triggers for violent reactions against “outsiders” and widespread public unrest and mistrust, we need to look hard at what we have been taking for granted and find ways to do better – to find “an expansive frame of reference” in which to think again about our human condition.

Easthope, whether she knows it or not, is that rare thing, a genuine philosopher thinking through what she is actually doing in the mitigation of human suffering, grief and isolation. This book is more searching as an analysis of human needs and nature than a good many technical volumes on the subject. It is particularly pertinent amid the current interest in “transhumanist” aspirations to secure our immortality by uploading the contents of a brain into some kind of non-organic hardware, or the fashionable speculations about the possibility of enjoying multiple virtual identities. Whatever may lie ahead in terms of technical sophistication – and the messianism around these ideas is not exactly in step with the actual possibilities – the reality of who and what we are now is that we are organisms. Whatever virtual alternatives we may temporarily entertain, it remains true that if the organism is destroyed, something comes to an irreversible end. More than we realise, our human cultures are ways of refining skills in managing our organic identity, and so managing the prospect of our death, making it possible in some degree to understand and come to terms with it and to incorporate death into a story with “the sense of an ending”, in a well-known phrase from literary criticism.

Paradoxically, that sense of an ending produces an attentive embrace of our physical surroundings as well as our own physicality. A good few thinkers in recent years have asked whether our suicidal stupidity about the environment doesn’t reflect a kind of illiteracy about our own materiality and mortality; as if something in our peculiar culture encourages us to think of ourselves as detached from these things – a corrosive blend of decayed religiosity and over-ambitious Enlightenment rationalism.

A less vulnerable and less reflective writer would have produced a chronicle of human desolation and doggedly faithful response, repeatedly frustrated by official ineptitude and the all-too-intelligible longing to draw a line under terrible memories. What makes this book distinctive is, first of all, the poignant awareness that loss is not to be “cured”, but can be integrated and honestly lived with if people are given the right level of time and attention; and secondly, the willingness to connect personal trauma with the sufferings of others – in a way that respects the sheer difference of those other people’s pain, yet assumes that mutual learning is always possible. It shows, time and again, an empathic grasp both of the chaotic emotions of those most directly affected by disaster, the pressure and confusion with which officials work in such circumstances, and the ease with which mistakes can be made out of misplaced goodwill. Easthope writes with understanding, for example, about the local council officials caught up in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, dropped into the deepest of water without much in the way of support or training.

This generosity is one of the things that makes the book so powerful, all the more as it never slips into a sentimental glossing over of incompetence or insensitivity. Easthope makes no secret of her anger, but takes care that it should be properly understood and directed, and doesn’t create more stigma, fear, defensiveness and failure. Both in its style and in its substance, this is a profoundly moral book, written with deceptive conversational ease; it opens up a world of terrible and extreme experience, but stubbornly continues to look at what’s there, the inner and outer landscape of what Easthope is not afraid to call the soul.

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When the Dust Settles: Stories of Love, Loss and Hope from an Expert in Disaster
Lucy Easthope
Hodder & Stoughton, 304pp, £20

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain