When young people ask my advice — and when you’re 80 that happens — I always tell them no experience is wasted.
Can that really be true, when the experience is as devastating, as terrifying, as tragic, as this pandemic?
? Read our coronavirus live blog for the latest news & updates
Esther Rantzen’s new documentary Living With Grief sees her meet people who have suffered the loss of loved ones
I believe it is, and that there are valuable lessons to learn from the grief this illness has created.
Covid has caused more than 100,000 deaths in the UK. It’s such a huge statistic we can’t really take it in. But it’s not just a number.
It means that a million, maybe even more, of those left behind will never be the same again, having lost someone in devastating circumstances, unable to hold them, comfort them, even say a last, loving goodbye to them.
I know about loss, of course. Nearly all of my generation have lost someone we are close to or someone we love.
In September 2000 I sat on my husband’s death bed, knowing I could do nothing to save him.
Covid has caused more than 100,000 deaths in the UK, it’s a huge statistic but it’s not just a number
But we did hold each other, we did say goodbye, he did tell me he loved me, and heard me say I loved him back.
I didn’t feel lucky at the time, but now I realise I was. In the strange, machine- littered hospital ICUs where the staff are dressed like spacemen and hands are gloved, faces obscured, death happens very differently.
In making my new documentary about grief, I interviewed Mandy, who lives in Essex, and whose husband Larry died from Covid last April. For 43 years they’d had a deeply loving marriage.
In their sixties, they both caught the virus last year, and he was taken to hospital two hours before she was.
SHAKEN TO THE CORE
Mandy told me: “My last words to him were, ‘I’ve got you an ambulance, darling. My darling, let me put a jumper over you. I’m sorry I can’t save your life because I’m so very ill.’
“I said, ‘I love you, darling, I’ve put clean pants in.’ I put my hand on his shoulder and I never saw him again.”
They were nursed one floor apart from each other in Basildon Hospital, both struggling under the impact of this terrible illness.
Mandy told me: “I was in a ward for Covid. Everybody had PPE on.
“The nurse came up, took my hand with her gloves, both hands, and she just sat and it meant ‘he’s gone’.”
Mandy is a vibrant, energetic woman, but the shock has thrown her off balance and shaken her to the core.
She said: “We had three children, a wonderful life. He was my rock and I’m lost.”
Covid restrictions meant that she couldn’t have the funeral she would have wanted.
Esther lost her husband Desmond in 2000, luckily they got the chance to tell each other how much they loved them before he passed
The undertaker was dealing with 21 bereaved families that day, and Larry’s funeral had to be outside, with only six people present.
That has left Mandy struggling with disbelief a year later. She told me: “I didn’t believe he was in the coffin — I never saw his body so it didn’t feel real.”
Her children are supporting her emotionally, but as I know from my own three when their father died, the children are dealing with their own loss.
Some friends have been very helpful, but others are oddly insensitive, expecting her to move on now almost a year has gone by.
The truth is that we all grieve our own way. There should be no judgments.
Bereavement has always been with us, long before the pandemic created headlines out of numbers.
Making our programme I have listened to many brave people who have lost loved ones from many other causes, and are still living with grief. They have dealt with it in different ways.
Esther with her daughters Becca and Miriam in Living With Grief
Some convert their pain and use it to create a lasting memorial to their loved one.
Lucy, whose toddler Jack drowned, is campaigning to change the law and spread awareness to support others suffering loss.
Amber, a young woman whose mother died very suddenly, has created an online group to support the young, who are often left out when we think of supporting the ones left behind.
Joy’s father was in such pain in his final illness that he took his own life, with the result that her mother was accused of murder. She believes we must change the laws around assisted dying.
Durone has found that religion has supported him since his brother was murdered. And Gary, an artist who has lost his lovely wife Joy, uses his art to express his feelings.
Each one of them has thoughts that helped me, and I’m sure viewers will find them empowering and uplifting.
I learnt some practical ideas, too. The uniqueness of Mandy’s pain, exacerbated by Covid restrictions, makes me feel that the Department of Health should commission a helpline to support Covid bereaved families and their carers.
And let’s create a new Bank Holiday, Covid Remembrance Day, when all this is over. Let’s take a day off work so that we all can dedicate the time to remembering and giving thanks.
I know it seems odd to give thanks when we have lost so many. But I have learned from my own experience, and from talking to people who have also lost loved ones, that alongside the loss is a thankfulness that we have had that person in our life.
We could devote our Covid Remembrance Day also to giving thanks for the heroic strength of everyone we depended upon to survive — in our hospitals, in our cemeteries, in our supermarkets and pharmacies, in the laboratories, in government departments, whether they were dedicated staff or, like Captain Sir Tom Moore, they were inspired volunteers.
And, of course, we need to remember the work of thousands of carers, nurses, doctors, scientists, psychologists, many struggling with their own pain, their own challenges, all sharing an overwhelming desire to save lives and limit the devastation caused by this pandemic.
By creating this special day we will ensure our experience is not wasted, and that we remember that each death, every life saved, is not just a statistic.
The Queen once said: “Grief is the price we pay for love.” And like so much she has said, it strikes a chord.
Let’s create a special day to celebrate that love — a Covid Remembrance Day.
- Esther Rantzen: Living With Grief is on Channel 5 tonight at 10pm.
GOT a story? RING The Sun on 0207 782 4104 or WHATSAPP on 07423720250 or EMAIL [email protected]