At the time of writing, 20,319 people have died in hospitals in the UK of coronavirus. If you include all those who have died in care homes and in the community, the total number is estimated to be over 45,000. No one knows exactly how many more will die.
At 3:15 this morning, just over an hour ago, my Dad died in Gloucester hospital and was added to this growing and harrowing statistic.
The magnitude of the coronavirus is hard to fathom. There are close to 3 million confirmed cases globally with a death toll close to 200,000. Cases have been confirmed in over 190 countries around the world. It has, rightly, dominated headlines and headspace for months now.
It is in this context that the magnitude of my Dad’s life now sits. While my family and I come to terms with this personal loss, I worry about his life being lost in this context. As the virus and its deadly impacts rage on, I see how people focus on this and might, unwittingly, reduce all that he was and is, to the statistical part he played since his covid diagnosis just over a week ago.
I think my initial reaction, as I fail to get back to sleep lying here listening to the unfathomably loud birdsong outside, is that it is this that bothers me most. I have long since been at peace with the idea of my Dad dying – I am not at peace with his life being reduced to a statistic that reflects nothing more than part of this last awful week and the part he played in this wider tragedy.
But strangely today I think I see things differently to yesterday – almost like in death there has been a strange form of liberation. Dad is no longer the stroke patient, the care home resident with worsening vascular dementia or even the latest vulnerable man to be diagnosed with coronavirus. He is no longer any of those things – at least not primarily. Instead, he is now the plethora of memories floating in the minds of eyes of the countless people and lives he touched.
For me, he remains the Dad that showed his love through actions. He enabled me to believe that I could do anything. He drove me both literally and metaphorically to take every opportunity that arose. So much of where I am today is because I started life stood on the shoulders of a giant of a man. A giant with a heart bursting with love who held so little of the vocabulary needed to express it. In my mind’s eye now there are not the words he spoke to me, but the image of the man who stood on the side of my metaphorical football pitch cheering me on every step of the way.
But this is just me. Elsewhere, as the news of my Dad’s death spreads, there will be people reflecting. Sat now watching the sun rise I like to think that as the toast pops in kitchens all over the country there will be people thinking of the man who started his own business and employed dozens of people. As kettles boil there will be thoughts of the man who volunteered to rebuild steam railways. As people head out to walk their dogs there will be anecdotes of the Scot who would always toast the haggis. As people walk out of the door there will be thoughts of him, my Dad, holding the church door open welcoming everyone in… Thinking now, if there is one act of kindness that best acts as a metaphor for my Dad it is perhaps holding the door open for others.
And then there is the family of mine, of his, who are all mourning him in their own ways. But who I hope are thinking of their Dad, Uncle, Brother who has played such a role in their lives over the last 80 years.
And that’s the other thing – 80 years is a really long time. And so much has happened in his life. It cheers me now as the colours take hold on the trees outside and the shades of the night-time grey slip away to think of the multitude of ways he has touched countless lives over the years and how they live on. The love he has left behind stands as a testimony to him, to the lives he touched. All that he was, and all that he is, is still in the hearts and minds of all those who knew him. He lives on through a thousand anecdotes, memories and personalities he has shaped with his love and kind actions. He lives on through his children and his grandchildren but also through every person who takes joy in riding the steam railway he helped restore.
For me, there is so much beauty in that.
The scale of deaths we are seeing from coronavirus are a tragedy. But I think this tragedy only ever makes sense if you understand it to be the sum of its part. When we talk of over 45,000 deaths in the UK, the magnitude of this can only resonate if you break it down to the individuals we have lost and the impact their lives have had on family, friends and the communities we all live in.
The zest for life my Dad held lives on through all of us that remember him for the man he was over those 80 years. No amount of his own death or others will ever, or can ever, diminish that.
This morning the sun is up and so am I. And this morning I’m going to put twice as much butter and marmalade on my toast as normal and smile the way Dad did each morning he did this. Because you know what, there is a lot to be said for the simple pleasures in life – my Dad taught me that.
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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