Our Campaign Manager for England, Andy Nazer, originally wrote this blog back in April, at the height of the lockdown. A lot has happened since then, so to mark Grief Awareness Week, he’s updated his blog to reflect on how the festive season will be a little different this year.
“No matter who we are, where we are, how old we are, loneliness unites us.”
In February 2019, Angelica, my partner, wife and best friend died. She’d been living with cancer for 13 years. She was born and raised in Greece and studied in London. She was funny and serious, organised and radiant, with formidable intelligence and intense emotions. She was deeply committed to creating a better world. She was a brave and loving foster parent and it was the greatest privilege to know her, and to be her husband.
The traditional rituals around death allow loved ones and friends to grieve healthily. Grief brings people together. Today, during this damnable coronavirus pandemic, we’re not only robbed of our loved ones, but also of our moments to honour them in a fitting way.
Right now, I’m also thinking of all those who won’t be embracing the festive spirit this year and who are contemplating how on earth they’re going to get through these next few weeks. I’m thinking of the tens of thousands who have lost someone in 2020 and are bracing themselves for the first Christmas without them.
The ‘firsts’ are really tough… Christmas… birthday… wedding anniversaries… death anniversaries, etc. But for many of us, so are the ‘seconds’ and the ‘thirds…’ 2020 has been the year we have each connected one way or another with grief and loss. We couldn’t avoid it. The shared grief of the human loss, the loss of jobs, the loss of opportunity, the loss of our dreams and aspirations… the loss of connection. Grief impacts us in so many ways and processing this will not be easy. We will need to share.
Grief Awareness Week
During this year’s Grief Awareness Week, 2-8 December, an initiative driven by The Good Grief Trust, they are encouraging people to ‘share their story’. I shared mine earlier in the year with the post below. Subsequently, I received emails from literally, all over the globe. The message that resonated was that yes, by and large, our experience of grief is unique to each of us, but what unites us all is the sense of loneliness that we connect with when we lose someone close to us. No matter who we are, where we are, how old we are, loneliness unites us.
Christmas is a time when people tend to reach out and come together. But for some, it will highlight the empty chairs around the table, the Christmas cards that no longer come, and the phone calls that are no longer received.
But Christmas can also be the time for opportunity; when the door is opened into people’s lives and we can ask them to get involved and reach out to those around them. Yes, this year social distancing will limit this. No ‘mince pie moments’ in the neighbour’s living room. But a card, perhaps a small gift, something created by a child, or a phone call can each, in their own way, make a connection that can lift someone’s day. And let them know that you are thinking of them. Small moments of connection can make a big difference to someone who is feeling lonely.
Dealing with loss
I thought I’d prepared myself for my wife, Angelica’s death. I’ve known a lot of loss. I’d met many bereaved people through my work, and upon advice from one of them, I commenced counselling sessions. So, if anyone was ready to take this on, it was me. So I thought. But, I’d never imagined grief could have so many dimensions, with both psychological and physical hair-triggers.
People and places, anything, and bang; the grief explodes inside me. Living in this pandemic has drawn me into the loss of Angelica in a deeper way. I try to take a day each week to find the space to process what’s happening.
I knew loss and grief would be a painful, draining experience, but what I’d totally underestimated was how vulnerable, isolated and lonely it would make me feel. I recall hearing from an older widower how he believed grief opened the door to loneliness and can now appreciate fully just what he meant.
Angelica’s funeral, in contrast to those taking place now, was in a packed crematorium, decorated with spring flowers, a string quartet played her favourite tunes. Friends delivered eulogies, read poems and sang for her. In the Greek Orthodox tradition we held a series of services in Greece, the first a week after her death. Here I first connected with the full force of shared grief. Several hundred attended. I was deeply moved to feel how loved Angelica was, and to be hugged, kissed and blessed by so many.
The next day I flew back from Athens. I was midway across the tarmac at Stansted when I reached for my mobile phone. As always I called Angelica to tell her I had arrived safe. And then I realised. She wasn’t there. No one was there. No one was waiting for me. Tears poured from me, my head spun, I stumbled through the main terminal. I found sanctuary in the car, Angelica’s car. I sat sobbing and for the first time, grief threw its arms around me.
Several of my friends affectionately refer to me as ‘Mr. Loneliness’ – well, I think it’s fair to say that finally Mr. Loneliness met Loneliness.
I knew Angelica’s demise was inevitable and together we made plans for a life for me, without her. But whatever we planned, when the end came, it still felt sudden. We were blessed to have a bed in a hospice – many don’t – surrounded by professionals who radiated compassion and care. And when Angelica’s final moments came I was able to hold her hand and say the words I’d rehearsed a million times in my head and I hope she departed feeling the deep love and respect we held for her.
“As a society we are afraid to engage with death. Dying is part of life. When the time comes we are often poorly prepared to support those living through bereavement.”
Contrast this with the thousands suffering their greatest fear. To die alone. Yes, indeed technology is playing a part by bringing people together in their final moments, but imagine the torment of seeing your loved one take their final breaths via an iPad and not be able to reach out
It’s impossible to measure the deep emotional upheaval caused by a loss during this pandemic, and exacerbated by the denial of the closeness and comfort of others, and mourning together. Bereavement is a lonely enough experience. Covid-19 adds another layer to this.
Half a million people die each year in the U.K. To send a ‘with sympathy’ card, thoughtful as it is, is not enough. As a society we need to talk, listen and learn more about death. And we need to step forward, rather than retreat. One day your turn will come and you’ll understand.