Coronavirus shows the UK must reimagine how it grieves

Britain is woefully ill-equipped for mourning. Our grief culture is a stifled one.

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In the week that Boris Johnson made his historic televised address to the nation announcing an unprecedented lockdown, screenshots of an article began to circulate on my newsfeed. “That discomfort you’re feeling is grief,” it professed. I didn’t need to be told: unusually for my age, grief is something I have become intimately acquainted with over the past two years. My mother died of cancer in April 2018, the day after I turned 26. As the pandemic began to take hold, I recognised that untethered feeling swimming through my body as the anticipation of fresh loss.

Unlike the death of my mother, however, this new grief was not finely woven into the micro of my everyday: it was national, pervasive and destabilising everyone I knew. The uncertainty and fear of grief resounded back at me as my non-bereaved friends spoke of their anxiety, of how social events from the week before now felt like they existed on a different continent entirely. And here was our prime minister giving the country’s prognosis: it wasn’t good. The noise of everyday life dropped out and the fragility of the structures that frame our lives was revealed. We were abruptly reminded, within days, that even “in the midst of life, we are in death”.

New losses recall previous ones. On a national level, this meant tabloids swiftly turned to the memory of the Blitz, drawing parallels between lockdown and the somewhat romanticised accounts of national efforts during the blackout – accounts that do little to excavate the longterm effects of mass death in our country.

In reality, Britain is woefully ill-equipped for mourning. Our grief culture is a stifled one. It wasn’t always so. In the Victorian era, thanks to high mortality rates and the country’s Christian faith, death was expected and accepted; grief was publicly professed. Women – most famously, Queen Victoria – wore mourning dress to convey their grief.

But from the turn of the century, as soldiers were sent to their deaths in the world wars and church attendance declined, the Christian mourning rites that had traditionally soothed families became increasingly obsolete. Dead soldiers were fated to rest where they fell on foreign soil; for their families, there were no deathbed goodbyes, no funeral processions and no burials. Mass mourning laid thick like a pall over the nation in postwar society and new rites were created. The body of one unknown soldier came to resemble all; one grave had to inter hundreds of thousands.

Armistice Day was conceived to memorialise the nation’s loss. It aggrandised senseless death into acts of heroism and bravery, and respected sacrifice, but did little to represent the everyday, infinitesimal pains of grief. While pomp and ceremony required respects to be paid silently, veterans suffering PTSD ended up homeless in parks in London, and an inquiry into shell-shock found that men who continued to be tormented by it were simply too cowardly to overcome it. Individual grief was minimised because a loved one’s death could only ever be one among many – a drop in an ocean of unspeakable death.

And death did become unspeakable. All of us who have given remembrance with two minutes of silence know that oppressive quiet. Public commemoration equates grieving with silence; that to honour something difficult, we must not speak. It’s a public enactment that teaches us from a young age that the language of bereavement is a wordless one; that the ritual of remembrance is mute. We do not inquire and we do not keen; we keep quiet and carry on. 

I recall the funeral director who helped arrange my mother’s funeral telling me how these cultural shifts formalised the funeral industry; how the dead were displaced from the family locus into institutions: hospitals, morgues and funeral homes. My mother – an NHS worker for nearly four decades – wanted to stay in the house after she died rather than be moved to a funeral home. It turned out to be one final blessing. Sitting by her body somehow softened her departure; it made me feel as though I were accompanying her as far as I could to the boundary between life and death.

Facing mass death once again, Britain’s grief culture must change to fit 21st-century society. Such shifts were already underway before this pandemic, though the language around our attempts to voice trauma illustrates how embedded those postwar attitudes to bereavement are: a younger generation expressing their feelings are “snowflakes”; social media, a vehicle for “oversharing”.

This rhetoric distracts, however, from the real changes occurring in how we process and express grief. After my mother’s death I felt emotionally isolated the way we are all physically isolated now: alienated from my friends and family, while every anchor of normalcy was ripped from under me. I sought a support group for twentysomethings and, finding none, set up my own, The Grief Network. Providing an open space for young people to gather and talk about their grief, we often hear how our community longs for their friends to just ask; that their silent attempts at compassion only read as a lack of care.

The Grief Network is part of a growing movement of new-gen “grief clubs”, while initiatives such as Untangle – an online support group app – aim to connect people digitally who cannot access resources in person. Culturally, we are beginning to explore how death reverberates through our lives far beyond the incident of it: podcasts such as Cariad Lloyd’s Griefcast or Angharad Carey-George’s Daddy Issues make sense of how absence marks you day-to-day. Such conversations dismantle the outdated notion that repression equates to courage, revealing how, often, it keeps us much closer to death.

And this inherited silence around illness and grief is also being broken by the raucous applause from windows up and down the country every Thursday night. It’s broken by sharing our angst on social media, which is no longer considered self-indulgent but a way to stay connected and help others feel less alone.

Much like fallen soldiers or frontline nurses, open conversations around grief are often labeled heroic or courageous, but are they, really? Or are they what makes us human? My mother worked for the NHS for nearly 40 years. I wonder what she would have made of this pandemic. Were she still working, I don’t believe she would have seen her job as an act of heroism; she’d have seen nursing as a necessity, first and foremost. Maybe she would have appreciated the admiration, but she would have appreciated the correct equipment and testing more.

We must be wary of glossing the sacrifices we are making in this crisis with the label of heroism, and we must avoid burying our losses in silence. The nation instead is beginning to embrace collective compassion and an openness towards how we express our grief: we are coming to learn that expressions of vulnerability can be seen as a strength rather than a weakness. Instead of treating death as unspeakable we must speak of it, no matter how hard that is. Those changes are underway; the isolation we collectively bear will galvanise them. We’re living in a new decade and a new century: for Britain’s grief culture, there will be silence no more.

Rachel Wilson is a writer who has written for the Guardian, the Times and the New Statesman, and is the founder of The Grief Network, a community for bereaved young people. She is currently finishing her first novel.

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