‘Grief must be witnessed’: A time of national mourning for UK COVID-19 victims is overdue ǀ View

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On March 5, the BBC reported that a 70-year-old woman in the Royal Berkshire Hospital had become the first Briton to die of COVID-19.

Exactly six months and tens of thousands of lives on, an initiative is hoping to bring people across the country together in a national day of remembrance.

People in cities, towns and villages are being invited to join candlelit vigils and socially distanced memorial services in order to share a moment of reflection and collective grief.

The idea for COVID Memorial Day was sparked by the recognition that, in the words of grief expert, David Kessler, “grief must be witnessed.”

In the months since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Britons have been subjected to an unending barrage of facts, figures and graphs and charting the ever-rising death toll.

And yet, apart from clapping for carers, the only opportunity people have been given to come together was not for a moment of collective mourning. Instead, it was for a day of nostalgia and celebration for D-Day.

Contrast this with Spain where a 10-day remembrance period was held in May. Italy observed a minute of silence for its coronavirus victims in March and China held a nationwide day of mourning in February. The New York Times and O Globo, Brazil’s biggest newspaper, both devoted their entire front pages to obituaries of the dead when their county’s death toll hit 100,000.

Part of the problem in Britain is that everything about the government’s coronavirus strategy is inextricably entwined with politics and any association with the dead is something Downing Street wants to avoid at all costs. As a result, the act of grieving the dead has become almost a political act.

And yet the organisers of COVID Memorial Day, myself included, are determined to keep the day entirely non-political.

A coalition formed last month includes HEROES, a group that provides support to NHS frontline staff. “Working as a frontline doctor in COVID intensive care units, I saw the painful toll of this last six months on patients and their ones as well as on NHS staff,” says Dr Dominic Pimenta, chair of HEROES. “But on this day we will take a moment remember those who are no longer with us and commit ourselves to continue to support healthcare workers and their bereaved families.”

As well as providing a day of remembrance, one of the other coalition partners, the Covid19 Memorial Forest Fund aims to create a more permanent memorial to the dead in the shape of a memorial forest.

The forest of 50,000 trees will be planted on 60 hectres of land (three sites are currently being considered). The forest will include a playground and butterfly farm as well as an interactive app that will mean each tree you pass will send a message to your phone or tablet. That message will tell you about the life of the person in whose memory that tree was planted, including photos and film.

“Whilst COVID Memorial Day is bound to live long in our hearts, we also wanting to leave a more permanent memorial,” said Salmaan Nasser, co-founder of the Covid19 Memorial Forest Fund. “The Memorial Forest will be a sanctuary where people can come and relax and remember but also a symbol post-COVID of rejuvenation and growth.”

The deaths of so many elderly people under COVID-19 led to the setting up of Hear Our Elders. They see the pandemic as an opportunity for society to realign the way in which it treats older people. Their digital listening project aims get families to record their elders and build a repository of their knowledge and wisdom.

Like Clap for Carers, COVID Memorial Day is an idea, not an organisation or a campaign.

It is hoped that, in the same way, our hearts swelled with gratitude when we came together to applaud NHS and healthcare workers, we will allow ourselves to come together in a moment of collective grief.

In ‘Macbeth,’ when Malcolm hears that MacDuff’s wife and children are dead he says, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

On September 5, exactly six months after the first Briton was reported to have died of COVID-19, COVID Memorial Day will be a moment to give our sorrow words.

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