LONDON – For nine months, Gordon Bonner has been in the “hinterlands of despair and desolation” after losing his wife of 63 years to the coronavirus pandemic that has now taken the lives of more than 100,000 people in the United Kingdom.
Only recently did Bonner think he might be able to move on — after sensing the spirit of his wife, Muriel, near him on what would have been her 84th birthday.
“I suddenly understood I had to change my attitude, that memories are not shackles, they are garlands and one should wear them like garlands around your shoulders and use them to communicate between the quick and the dead,” the retired Army major said in an interview from his home in the northern city of Leeds. “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
Bonner, 86, is just one of many hundreds of thousands of Britons toiling with grief because of the pandemic. With more than 2 million dead worldwide, people the world over are mourning loved ones, but the U.K.'s toll weighs particularly heavily: It is the smallest nation to pass the 100,000 mark.
While Wuhan, Bergamo or New York City may be more associated with the pandemic, the U.K. has one of the the highest death tolls relative to its population. For comparison, the United States, with five times Britain's population, has four times the number of deaths. Experts say virus tallies, in general, are undercounts due to limited testing and missed cases, especially early in the pandemic.
Alongside excess deaths comes excess grief, made even more acute by the social distancing measures in place to slow the virus's spread.
“There’s going to be a tsunami of grief and mental health issues this year, next year, ongoing, due to the complications, because of course people haven’t been able to have the usual rituals,” said Linda Magistris, founder of the Good Grief Trust, which brings bereavement services in the U.K. together under one umbrella.
Bonner understands the need for restrictions but that hasn't made it any easier.
Six weeks after he was prevented from going to Muriel’s care home because of lockdown restrictions and 10 days after she was diagnosed with COVID-19, Bonner was summoned to the hospital and, “dressed like a spaceman,” he bore witness to his wife’s final agonizing moments.
“She was working so hard to draw breath, her lips were pursed as if she was sucking on a straw," he said. "I can see her face now with her lips in that position and it was devastating and it knocked me sideways.”
That was the last time he saw Muriel, and that image haunts him. And in what he termed a “wicked twist in the tale," Bonner was not offered the chance to replace that memory as his wife's body was deemed a “reservoir of active coronavirus.” He wasn’t even able to have her dressed the way he wanted for her cremation. Hugs with friends and family — well, they’re not advised.
Those rituals help people cope, a task made harder now because there's no escape from the scale of death in the U.K. — beyond the annual average of around 600,000 — from the regular sound of ambulance sirens to the alarming headlines on news bulletins.
“The backdrop of death, of grief, around creates quite a caustic context,” said Andy Langford, clinical director at Cruse, a leading charity for bereaved people.
Many left behind are unsure where to seek help, partly because they are navigating the grieving process at a time when local health services are not operating as normal.
Bereavement charities have stepped in, tailoring support groups online, that may appeal to those who may otherwise have been reluctant to search out help in the pre-COVID-19 world.
But resources are stretched, especially when the country is regularly recording over 1,000 deaths a day. The government is being urged to provide extra funding to bolster helplines, counseling services and other community support programs.
“It’s really important we don’t pathologize grief as indicative of mental health difficulties, but equally a huge proportion of people will need support,” said Dr. Charley Baker, associate professor of mental health at the University of Nottingham.
Many won't need any or only minimal outside support. But there is a concern that some of the grief is pent up: that people may be be subconsciously shielding themselves from its full impact, and they may end up being hit hard as the pandemic comes under control.
“I think it will be strange because it will be a really positive thing when things can hopefully get back to some degree of normality, but I think that would also be a very difficult moment because we’ve all been a bit frozen in time,” said Jo Goodman, who lost her 72-year-old father Stuart last April, just days after he tested positive for the virus.
A couple of months after her father died, Goodman, 32, co-founded the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group to pressure the government to back a public inquiry into how the pandemic was handled last spring.
“We can’t normalize the fact that hundreds upon hundreds of people are dying everyday and knowing what their families are going through,” Goodman said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said an inquiry will take place — but only after the crisis is over. But already critics are arguing that the government has repeated the mistakes it made in the spring in the current resurgence, such as locking down the country too late. The U.K. is also contending with a new, more contagious variant that may carry a higher risk of death than the original strain.
Bonner, meanwhile, is hoping that the country will take the time to properly mourn and is considering sending a letter to Johnson, who has yet to back a national commemoration for virus victims, to suggest a "a simultaneous remembrance service so those of us who have lost people to COVID can go somewhere to seek some solace.”