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Let the Nation Mourn: UK Marks One Year Since First COVID-19 Death

Amongst the politics swirling around the Coronavirus crisis, Britain must find time for collective grief, says Stefan Simanowitz

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Let the Nation MournUK Marks One Year Since First COVID-19 Death

Amongst the politics swirling around the Coronavirus crisis, Britain must find time for collective grief, says Stefan Simanowitz

On 5 March 2020, BBC News reported that a 70 year-old woman in the Royal Berkshire Hospital had become the first Briton to die of COVID-19.

Exactly one year, and more than 120,000 deaths later, it is time for a moment of shared reflection and collective grief.

David Kessler, an expert on grief, says it “must be witnessed” and warns that, if it is not expressed, it can turn into depression or anger. As a nation confronted – directly or indirectly – by a year-long wave of suffering and death, there is certainly a great deal of depression and anger swilling around.

The UK remains one of the only countries to have experienced a large number of COVID-19 deaths which has not held a national memorial to mark this. Spain, for instance, had a 10-day period of remembrance period and, in January, President Joe Biden held a national COVID Memorial Day for the US.

“In order to heal we must remember,” the new President said, speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington DC, illuminated by hundreds of flickering candles. The reaction of one American man after the event summed it up: “I hadn’t realised just how much I’d needed that.”

On Monday, mayors in more than 100 cities across America proclaimed the first Monday in March to be COVID Memorial Day, marking it with vigils and calling on the President to make this date a national holiday. It seems likely that Biden, who has clearly recognised his role as Mourner-in-Chief, will agree to it.

Yet in the past year – apart from ‘Clap for Carers’ – the only opportunity for a shared experience around the impact of the Coronavirus crisis in the UK came with the death of Captain Sir Tom Moore last month, a 100-year-old man who had raised more than £30 million for NHS charities by walking around his garden during lockdown.

Psychologically burdened by the past year, it is easy to forget how we felt last March as the country prepared to enter the first lockdown. On the day that national restrictions were announced, there had been 55 deaths. Yesterday’s death toll of 315 hardly received a media mention.

From the very start of the Coronavirus pandemic, Britain’s response has been entwined with politics. As a result, the simple act of grieving the dead has become almost a political act.

Yet grief knows nothing of politics. It has no party colours.

For this reason, COVID Memorial Day – an unofficial day of remembrance held today – has been designated a ‘politics-free zone’. Like a saloon in a Wild West film where everybody has to deposit their guns at the door if they want to enter, political views will be banned.

William Shakespeare said: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers o’er-fraught heart and bids it break” – and COVID Memorial Day is intended give words to our sorrow.

Yet grief isn’t all about sorrow. You can only experience grief if you have experienced love. Indeed, grief is the collateral damage of love. The more deeply you love, the more painful the grief.

Unlike our southern European neighbours, most traditions and rituals of grieving have been lost in Britain. Our culture has no common language of loss. Colleagues may send us a card but avoid eye contact in the corridor as the head of human resources tells us that they “know how we feel” as they sign us off for two weeks’ compassionate leave.

But grief doesn’t work like that. One doesn’t truly recover from loss. If you are lucky, you will heal from loss. But never completely.

“Over the last year many of us have been touched by grief either directly or indirectly,” says psychologist Jo Hemmings. “Whilst a single day of mourning will not set everything right, it is remarkable what grieving, and in particular collective grief, can achieve. COVID Memorial Day is a day when people can light a candle, take a pebble to the top of a hill or simply sit and reflect on those they have lost.”

“As we see light at the end of the tunnel, all of us can provide a light in the darkness this COVID Memorial Day,” adds Dr Philippa Whitford MP.

As we mark this sombre anniversary, I’m reminded of a message left on the wall of remembrance at a service marking six months since the first COVID-19 death in the UK: “I will celebrate her, but before I can celebrate her, I must remember her. And before I can remember her, I must mourn her. So if you see me – shivering and dumbed with loss – stand by me. Because grief needs a witness.”

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and coordinator of COVID Memorial Day. For more information visit

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