There is a moment in the history of the First World War that never ceases to hit me for six.
It comes not on in a muddy trench but in Whitehall in 1920. A mother has brought her son on a long journey from Scotland with flowers picked at home to lay on the Cenotaph. This memorial was thronged with people from across Britain on a similar trip. Their grief also had no body to focus on.
A newspaper account tells the story.
The boy and his Mum surveyed the field of flowers that surrounded the Cenotaph all left by grieving families who had made the same pilgrimage.
“Oh mummy,” the boy says to her Mum, “doesn’t Daddy have so many flowers in his garden?”
And a strapping Police Sergeant who was shepherding the crowds past the monument overhears, turns away and covers his face with a handkerchief. It broke him in grief. And the innocence of the boy’s comment always gets to me, too.
The Cenotaph was only supposed to be temporary but the overwhelming public response made it permanent.
Nearby, at Westminster Abbey lies the body of an unknown soldier. This corpse was selected at random from three bodies brought from three British sectors. One was chosen at random. It was carried home by gun carriage and by battleship and was given the status in burial of a King. He was buried with a sword from the Royal collection that Henry V had used and thevact of ceremony caught the nation’s mood. It still does. After every Royal wedding since the bride leaves her bouquet on the grave. It is Holy ground.
This week in the UK, we passed the sombre landmark of 100,000 dead in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Psychotherapist Julia Samuel, whose area is grief, spoke about the need for a national marking of these deaths on the BBC Newscast podcast.
“There is a very individual and collective shock and trauma.
“We find it difficult to think let alone talk about death. We want to turn away yet we can’t. The circumstances of the death have an enormous impact of your ability to grieve without complexity.”
But people have not had space to grieve, she said.
“The underbelly of the corona pandemic is the mental health pandemic and this bereavement aspect is a very sign aspect and they’ve travelled alongside each other,” she added.
Once this is over, ritual is badly needed to mark the country’s significant loss, she said.
Every village after the Great War marked death with memorials and we remember those on November 11. But what of the death from the Spanish Flu pandemic? Not a single memorial got built to the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles or grandparents who died.
History shows that we would rather put pandemics behind us and move forward with our lives. That’s what we did in Shakespeare’s time and what we did in the 20th century. It’s likely what we’ll do this time, too.
In the First World War we applauded people off to the dangers of the front just as we clapped the carers in the first weeks of lockdown. But then when those men came back from the war how quickly we forgot them.
I hope we don’t.
Each death grieves nine
For each of the 100,000 dead there are an average of nine people whose lives have been affected who can’t grieve. Across the country there are people often in low paid jobs facing risk every day who are unable to pull near to the ones they love. Some are carers and some are not.
Yet there is absolutely a need for a national day of mourning where we can properly grieve and there’s a need for something like a cenotaph, too.
The doctors and nurses on the frontline and those who have lost loved ones deserve all the memorials and recognition in the world. It’s quite right that they get this.
The ‘we’re fine’ myth
But behind this are public sector communications people who can count the extra distance they’ve travelled not by extra yards but in the thousands of extra miles.
The mental health pandemic runs parallel with the disease. But its not just grief that causes strain. Working under stress for months does that too.
Outwardly, people say they’re fine but inwardly they’re not. A survey I’m running shows more than 70 per cent of public sector comms people talking about deteriorating mental health. That worries me sick.
It feels as though in this chapter of the pandemic people need to say ‘enough’ if enough has been reached. If and when they do they won’t be alone in that. One regular poster on the Public Sector Comms Headspace made such an admission. There was a lot of recognition in the room for it.
I don’t have much advice in this blog, I’m sorry.
Just don’t be afraid to say ‘enough’ if you feel that point has been reached in yourself or with a colleague.
I don’t know what else to say.
The NHS Every Mind Matters page can be found here.