I’ve never seen someone look more tired. The luminous orange jumpsuit he was pulling on looked paper thin, but the way he handled it made it look like it was weighing him down. The rain didn’t help either, coming down as it was in thick heavy droplets. He steadied himself and leant awkwardly up against the police van trying to dress himself. I didn’t like to stop and stare, but it was hard not to.
I sat there in my car for some minutes. How many exactly I can’t say for sure. It smelt sickly of limoncello, from the hand sanitizer that rested permanently now in the driver’s door. Another small visual clue of how things have changed. A few months ago, I was not the type of guy to religiously use hand sanitizer. Now though as rain blurred my windscreen and limoncello filled my nostrils, I watched two young police officers pull on full protective clothing outside of a medium sized residential care home on the outskirts of my hometown, Gloucester. I learnt later that they were undertaking this task to free up capacity amongst medical personnel.
Sat there I thought back to visiting the care home in the last few months. The gush of warm air as you open the door. The biro by the visitor’s book perched next to the inexplicable bowl of foxes mints. How a sea of faces would look up as you entered the living room; One resident, chair-bound and staring, another engrossed in knitting, and my Dad always, and I mean always, fast asleep. All of them frail, elderly and often with poor health. Each of them deemed ‘vulnerable’ by the new vernacular of our new age. And none of them with any real agency to control the threat that they faced from this new virus.
I still don’t know how many of the people that my Dad shared the final few years of his life with are now dead. I’m not sure I want to know. I also don’t know how many of those who survive him know he is dead. I realise now that there is a lot I don’t know about Dad’s final few years of life as I played little more than a weekly cameo part popping in and out of his four walled world. I think about how terrifying it must be now for those with the cognitive function to process what is happening as they remain isolated away from their friends and family in care homes reading daily about this deadly virus.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to work in a care home and be responsible for their health and wellbeing in this context so out of our control. As the news catches up with the role care homes play in this global pandemic though the numbers that are following are terrifying. The ONS has already recorded over 5,000 deaths but this figure is likely to be much higher. As Full Fact say:
“[many of the] unexplained extra deaths in care homes and private residences are in fact Covid-19 deaths, and we’re undercounting the size of the epidemic”
The enormity and scale of this crisis isn’t always evident to those not on the frontlines – myself very much so included. But I promise you that I saw it in the body language of the two young police officers pulling on their protective clothing waiting to go into the care home. And I promise you it was more than evident in the staff member who greeted me at the back door. I saw in her so much tiredness. The tiredness that death brings. Worse though I think I saw in her the tiredness that suffering you can’t stop brings.
I asked if she is OK and she mustered a forced smile that meat little and said that she hasn’t hugged her child in weeks. I stood there helplessly in the rain that seemed to be getting worse.
We went inside, a few seconds respite from the rain. We started to pick up the pile of possessions I was there for. A small mountain piled in the corner of an unused communal room. We carried them together outside. Working quickly together but always apart. Large drops of rain running down each of the bin bags of clothes that we both bundled into the back of my car. At one point I made a joke about how much he owned but no one was around to hear it. In the silence that followed the latex of my gloves squeaked loudly against the plastic of the wet bags every time I dropped one into my car.
The whole transaction felt stripped of remotely appropriate interaction. I remember thinking that I wanted to hug her, to give her any strength I have left and to help her keep going. I wanted to tell her that in my eyes she is the nearest thing to a hero I’ve seen for doing what she does. I wanted to tell her how much her years of care of my Dad meant. Instead she handed me an envelope of 140 pounds and twenty-two pence of petty cash leftover, and I gave her a bottle of wine and some chocolate. I muttered something about being eternally grateful but the phone in her pocket rang.
It was so inadequate.
It kept raining and I got back into my car, stripped off my gloves, squirted the yellow limoncello smelling hand sanitizer onto my hands and started the engine. I left knowing I would probably never come back.
Sat here now surrounded by my Dad’s possessions I can say that I am grateful to the care staff, to the nurses, to the police. But this doesn’t even come close to communicating how profoundly important I know their jobs to be, how much I think we as a society owe to them and how angry I am that it has taken these truly awful circumstances for us to begin to appreciate this.
All I can do to make sense of it is write this and think how in retrospect I am embarrassed that I gave them a bottle of wine when they deserve nothing short of the world.
The social distanced funeral and the need for primeval hugs
My Dad’s funeral was last week. It consisted of me, my four siblings and a vicar, all stood 2 metres apart in Gloucester Crematorium. The vast majority of people watched on through a live stream as the hymns and the eulogy echoed around the near empty room. The rows of empty silent pews speaking volumes about all the people who knew and loved Dad over the years who couldn’t be there.
After the funeral I have spent some time trying to answer people’s unimaginative question, “how was the funeral”? And I think this is the nearest I have come to an answer so far.
Crucially, both for coronavirus, but also for understanding what happened, there was no physical contact at the funeral at all. The vicar welcomed us with a polite nod of the head and my siblings and I all gave half smiles and weak waves back.
At the end of the service there were no hugs, no shared tears, and no sharing of marginally inappropriate anecdotes at the boozy wake. There wasn’t even the usual socially awkward British handshake (or my personal favourite, when one persona goes in for a handshake and the other a hug) from friends from Dad’s distant past. Instead there were just awkward good-byes and splodges of hand sanitizer as the next cask was wheeled in for the next small group of mourners. As we all disappeared off to our own separate lives even the warmth of sun felt inappropriate. It was a beautiful warm day and I knew the next time I would speak to my siblings it would be through a Zoom call or a shared meme on WhatsApp.
To me it felt inadequate, a poor fraction of a funeral for a man that burst at the seams of life. I wanted a festival for him, I wanted to hear first-hand about how he used to rally cars, how he spent hours preserving ancient machinery, how at one point or another he would have poured everyone there a glass of desert wine and watched expectantly for their reaction as they took the first sip.
Instead, the inadequacy compounded a hurtful sense of the inadequacy in not being able to be there to support my Dad in his final weeks of life. Instead of holding his hand in those final weeks I counted down the hours and days left of his life just 20 miles from the hospital where he rested. I still feel disproportionately grateful to the palliative care doctor who told me she sat and held his hand while she spoke to him about steam trains.
Although I answer honestly when I tell everyone “I’m fine” it is, I think, important to acknowledge that with death comes a form of psychological pain. And ritual and contact normally plays an important role is helping us all deal with that pain.
While people deal with this pain in their own personal and socially specific ways, I read that everyone uses the same regions of the brain to process this pain. To one degree or another it’s a shared experience. When we come together to mourn a death remarkably similar thought processes are occurring in all of our brains.
Crucially though, these processes are the same parts of the brain that are used to process physical pain. To deal with this, most of the world has developed a form of ritual that helps release endorphins to dampen this pain – in our society this is around the social gathering and shared embraces at a funeral.
We know that endorphins dampen, incredibly effectively, our psychological pain. That is why at funerals hugs are shared so freely when in general in British society we normally avoid that close embrace of a hug. It’s thought that these endorphins produce an opiate-like analgesic effect but just much stronger (one study suggests 18-33 times the effectiveness). We have evolved this behaviour as social creatures over millions of years. As a behaviour pattern it really isn’t dissimilar to the grooming of primates. Cuddling, with its stroking, patting and even the occasional leafing through the hair (that’s a joke) is the human form of primate grooming, and is designed to create and maintain our relationships and to soften pain. Anyone parent will know the impulsive response to hug their child equally when they fall over as when they are upset about something.
In an increasingly isolated world that has become more and more physically distanced (I had a cousin watch dad’s funeral from New Zealand), these rituals of gatherings around births, deaths and weddings are more important than ever. Sometimes a decade could pass and these are the only occasions when my extended family will have got together. These are our backstop to maintaining the loving relationships that sit as the foundation blocks to personal, family and social well-being.
That’s why I feel a funeral could and should be a time to gather and share stories of love and shared history but perhaps more importantly to be there, physically, for each other. Instead it feels like the coronavirus not only stole the last part of my Dad’s life, and indeed also the small but important role that we his children could play – to be there physically for him, but it also stole so much of the ritual that we all rely on to help us through the mourning process. In these socially distancing times, it feels like we are being asked to go against the most primeval of instincts embedded within all of us. To gather, to give and receive a hug and to share our memories.
One of the most comforting thoughts now is the promise of a gathering when “all this is over”. I know that this is unlikely to happen any time soon but the prospect of it is something to hold onto. To really say good-bye to my Dad I want warm ales on a hot day and long anecdotes about narrow-gauge railways all shared by the unusually diverse group of friends that my Dad managed to hold onto. But most of all I want a moment when everyone is deep in conversation and the booze is flowing that I can turn to someone who knew him and loved him as much as I did and hug them, and to mutter softly how much he would have loved us all being there together.
Until then I am making do with photo-albums and the incredibly lucky sensation of constantly having two children climbing over me and to be sharing this all with the most loving wife.
I know in this sense I am lucky and my heart breaks for all those in comparable situations going back to empty houses. If you are still reading this I urge you to take the time to reach out to those people living alone – I’m really OK and they might well not be. This unprecedented time isn’t just changing the basics of the modern society that we have grown so use to, but also the slowly evolved rituals that we rely on more heavily than most of us realise. There is little that can replace the importance of a hug but just letting people know you’re there for them is also important.
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