There is much discussion in funeral world about whether funeral directors should be prioritised for vaccination as ‘frontline workers’. Indeed, we have heard that some celebrants are also enquiring as to whether they too should be considered a priority to be vaccinated against the virus which has ravaged our lives for the last year.
For background, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has a very clear list of priorities for vaccination in phase 1, which is currently underway :
- residents in a care home for older adults and their carers
- all those 80 years of age and over and frontline health and social care workers
- all those 75 years of age and over
- all those 70 years of age and over and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals
- all those 65 years of age and over
- all individuals aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality
- all those 60 years of age and over
- all those 55 years of age and over
- all those 50 years of age and over
JCVI does not advise further prioritisation by occupation during the first phase of the programme, noting that, “This prioritisation captures almost all preventable deaths from COVID-19, including those associated with occupational exposure to infection.”
This week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that ministers will consider whether key workers such as police, teachers and essential shop staff should be prioritised once the most vulnerable have received the coronavirus vaccine, and Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick has said she is ‘baffled by the government’s decision not to prioritise police offers and is in ongoing discussion with government to try and change their position.
Understandably, people working within the funeral sector are anxious. A petition has been created to ‘Prioritise funeral workers for COVID vaccine’. It’s not specific as to whereabouts funeral workers should come on the list, asking that ‘parliament ‘recognise that we are frontline workers and we are at risk every time we go to work and put us as a priority to have the vaccine ASAP’.
This has attracted some interest from the media, and one of our Recommended Funeral Directors was contacted this week for comment. We invited her to share her thoughts about vaccine priority on the blog in a guest post. Your comments or thoughts are very welcome.
Guest blog post from Lucy Coulbert, owner of The Individual Funeral Company
“Should funeral directors be prioritised for a Covid vaccine?”
This wasn’t even a question I was asked by a BBC researcher. What they actually asked was “What are your thoughts on the petition to government to have funeral directors vaccinated as key workers.”
I’ll be honest; I really don’t understand why the traditional funeral associations were pushing for funeral directors to be given priority for vaccinations.
Are we at risk? Only to a very small extent. When we go to a hospital mortuary, we follow the government guidance to the letter concerning PPE. The risk to us is extremely low.
This is because the hospital would have tested people for Covid-19 and if they were positive at the time of their death, they are placed in a body bag before we collect them.
We aren’t allowed to enter our local hospital without a mask at all. Before I even get out of my vehicle, my mask is on and so are my gloves.
When we go to a care home or someone’s own home, I completely disregard the government guidance on wearing a “fluid resistant face mask” in favour of an FFP3 mask which is the best grade of mask money can buy.
We wear a full white paper suit which also covers our hair, shoe covers, a long sleeve plastic apron, gloves, FFP3 mask and a face shield. This is above and beyond what the government recommend.
We do this because we treat ourselves as if we have Coronavirus and we want to protect the staff in the care homes & residents along with a person’s family if they died at home.
When we go into these settings, including into care homes which have had a Covid outbreak, the exposure we have to Coronavirus is low because we are there for less than 30 minutes unlike doctors and nurses who are exposed for hours on end even with the best masks.
So why should funeral directors essentially be allowed to queue-jump when our risk is low? Honestly, I have absolutely no idea other than it being some kind of vanity or there is some kind of perceived “prestige” in being labelled a key worker.
Neither of those things should mean we get to jump the queue.
Because this is the reality. If we are jumping up the queue to be vaccinated, then other people have to move down.
This isn’t us being vaccinated along side of those who should be. It is us being vaccinated instead of someone else.
At 38 years old and in relatively good health, am I more important to vaccinate than my 90 year old grandmother? Am I more important to vaccinate than a care home staff member or a social worker? Am I more important than a hospital chaplain or my asthmatic next door neighbour? Am I more important than a supermarket worker or hospital porter?
The answer is no. I should be far down the list of people who should be vaccinated.
My GP sent me a text to say if you are a healthcare worker to please call them. I did. I explained I am a funeral director but I also told them I didn’t feel I was in any way a priority.
There have been instances whereby vaccines would go to waste because someone took them out of the freezer too early. I told them if that happened and they didn’t want it to be wasted, to call and I would go but that would be the only way I would attend an appointment without it being my turn.
In March 2020 a week before the government decided to finally introduce a national lockdown, I asked my assistant to work from home. Within 24 hours, she had a brand new laptop delivered to her door.
My other members of staff were given instruction on how to don and doff PPE safely including how to make sure their masks should fit correctly.
They were all asked again if they had any medical conditions I needed to know about and they were all given the option of not working at all.
This was a really frightening time because we really didn’t know enough about what we were being asked to face. I had to ask my staff if they wanted to continue with their duties because given we were facing the unknown, I didn’t want them to feel as though they had to face it with me.
They were all in agreement to keep working and so I set up an A Team and B Team. This was simply so that should any member of the A Team test positive for Coronavirus, I still had a full team of people who could continue on with their duties without there being even the slightest hint of disruption to our clients.
They were all instructed that if they felt ill, even if they didn’t think it could be related to Coronavirus, then they had to tell me immediately and book a test.
While I had an A Team and B Team, I also spoke with other professional work colleagues and made agreements with them that should anything happen to both of my teams of people, would they be prepared to help.
With them on board, that meant I had a core staff of 5 people and then three back-up plans.
So with all of the PPE, teams of staff and two emergency back-up plans, I felt we were ready for anything we had to face.
Nine months on, those plans are still in place and I have gone even further. Only one staff member that I work with regularly is allowed inside my office and only when required.
Our bearers aren’t allowed in my office at all and haven’t been allowed for quite some time.
Since this new lockdown came into force, I was in touch with all of the staff and reminded them that although it feels different this time (much less strict than the first lockdown if the cars and people passing my office are any indication) I need them to remember we are still in the midst of a pandemic and unless they are shopping for food or seeking medical attention, they really need to stay at home.
Now, given I am a small and bespoke company, I don’t really understand why I can put all of these measures in place, prepare my staff and have the best PPE available and other companies can’t.
The only way people contract Coronavirus is by not washing their hands, not wearing a face covering and not social distancing.
There is no other way of contracting it.
Where there are outbreaks of Covid in funeral directors, I have to ask myself how that happened.
Why are their client’s services being interrupted when it is easily avoidable?
The week before I split up my staff last year, we were attending a service at the crematorium. All of my staff, including me, were wearing FFP3 masks and black disposable gloves.
Looked terrible but I had a long conversation with my clients at the time and explained why it was important that we do.
They completely understood and actually thanked us for keeping them in mind and for doing what we could to keep them safe.
While we were waiting for a last family member to arrive, I looked across the car park and there was a funeral director sat in his van filming us. I assume it was so he could show everyone back at the company he worked for what we were doing and how stupid we all were.
Now the crematorium has said no one can enter the chapel without a mask or gloves.
So my point is, if I can have all of this in place and pre-empt what will be required of us next, enough so that it is already second nature already, why can’t everyone else?
With this vaccination queue-jump, it almost feels like companies want the government to solve a problem they created by not putting proper steps in place, possibly not the correct PPE and certainly no emergency planning if their clients are affected.
No person is any more important than the next simply because of the job we do.
I’m afraid the people who decided they would campaign to get funeral directors vaccinated early have really missed the point and I believe they have done it for reasons I can’t fathom.
Any funeral director willing to be vaccinated early rather than wait their turn should ask themselves “Who had to wait so I could have this?”
In the end, this vaccine needs to be getting to the very most vulnerable people in our society. For what it is worth, I would gladly give up my space in that queue for anyone who needs it more than I do rather than playing Funeral Director Hunger Games for a jab.
We couldn’t have children at Steve’s funeral ceremony.
Covid restrictions on numbers meant that we had to be ruthless in paring down the people allowed to be present, and there were so many whose connections with Steve went back years, we made the judgement call that they had to take precedent over my grandchildren. This was a tough decision for me, as I feel strongly that children should be involved and present at funerals if they want to be, particularly of someone who has been such a strong influence and is loved as much as Steve was by my daughter’s children, but given the number of expletives involved in Steve’s funeral ceremony, it was probably the responsible one to take…
I have six grandchildren, and the three who belong to Grace, my younger daughter, have always been incredibly close to Steve. He has been in their lives since they were born, and to them he is Grandpa Steve. They live just around the corner from here and treat ‘Nana’s house’ just like their own, so they were particularly pleased when Steve and I moved back here full time just before the lockdown was announced. Once ‘bubbles’ were permitted, as a single mum, Grace and the children linked up with us, and normal relations were resumed, with Leo, Albert and Amelia spending as much time here as they could.
Late in the summer, when it was apparent that Steve’s cancer was accelerating, Grace and I took the children for a long walk and told them that Grandpa Steve was going to die because the doctors couldn’t make him better. Aged eight, six and almost three, they processed this information differently, asking a whole load of questions and trying to understand what we were telling them.
Luckily, in 2019, Grace’s beloved family dog Kizzie had died, and the boys in particular had very clear memories of saying goodbye to her on the morning that she had to be taken to the vets, and of then coming here to the house after school where we had laid her body on her bed and surrounded it with flowers from the garden. They had helped to dig the little grave for her and helped us wrap her body and then lower it into the grave, helping us fill it in and then plant a camellia on top of it.
Saying goodbye to Kizzie 2019
This experience was absolutely invaluable in helping them process what we were telling them, because they had a complete understanding of the difference between Kizzie alive and Kizzie dead. This gave them the reference they needed to understand what we were telling them would be happening to Steve – although it took a while for Albert to be persuaded that we wouldn’t be able to bury Steve in the garden with Kizzie, it was only when we talked about how much bigger a grave would be needed that he accepted it might be better if we let the gravediggers at the burial ground sort that out.
It was a really hard day, the day that we told them. It felt that we were deliberately taking something precious away from them, like telling them that there was no Father Christmas or Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy. Their trusting innocence in the safe world they inhabit was suddenly in jeopardy, one of the hugely important adults that they all love was going to be leaving them, he didn’t want to, but he had no choice, and there was nothing they could do about it. But it was the right time to tell them, and it meant that there were no secrets being hidden from them as the days went by. When we got home that day, I told Steve in front of them that we had been talking about him dying and he told them all that they could ask him anything they wanted to about it. They were more interested in what was for dinner than in having a conversation about his approaching death, but the offer was there and remained there from then on.
This new, strange knowledge was difficult for them to handle at times – when Steve and I told them that we were getting married, Albert was confused. “Why are you marrying Grandpa Steve when he’s going to die?” he asked. And seeing Steve having bad days when he was in pain and realising that he was losing his strength was hard for them. They wanted him to come on long dog walks and rough and tumble play with them like he used to and were sad that he couldn’t. But we all patiently explained over and again about how the cancer was affecting him and he really wanted to play but just couldn’t anymore the way he used to. I think that they were adapting really well to him gradually becoming less physically robust and were processing their understanding that he was going to die absolutely brilliantly. But then everything accelerated with frightening speed when he contracted Covid and we all had to isolate. They didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to him, something we would, in an ideal world, have made sure had happened. Instead, Grace encouraged them to write letters and draw pictures for him.
When Steve was taken to hospital, I knew he wouldn’t be coming home. I didn’t think any of us would ever see him again, but when I was called to the hospital the first time, I was able to take the letters and drawings with me and give them to him. He had rallied a little from the point earlier in the day when the nursing staff thought that the end was approaching, and by the evening he was feeling strong enough to look at them. That meant a lot to Leo and Albert and Amelia, that he saw their drawings and words and handprints. I think it will mean a lot to them as they grow up too, to know that Grandpa Steve knew how much they loved him.
Amelia’s portrait, a letter from Leo and a handprint from Albert
‘We love you Grandpa Steve. Get better soon’.
When Steve died just after midnight on the Sunday morning, the rest of the night was sleepless. Grace collected me from the hospital, I had been awake since 5am on Friday morning and was almost delirious with tiredness and grief. We sat with my son John until the sun came up, talking and crying and drinking tea, and then she went home to try and get a couple of hours of sleep before the children woke up. When they did, she brought them here, so we were all together. They came in with anxious faces and everyone cried, but then they needed breakfast and attention and cuddles – and the day unfolded with chattering and playing and arguing – in the midst of the exhaustion and sadness, it was exactly what we needed.
The tears came frequently that surreal day, for all of us, but kids do the ‘puddle jumping’ thing of dipping in and out of the big serious stuff, and then wanting to go out on their scooters. The consensus at the end of the day was that, now he didn’t need his body anymore, Grandpa Steve was everywhere, he was actually probably on the moon. When someone noticed that, on the side of the plastic flask with the built-in straw that Steve had at the hospital because it made drinking easier, there were the words ‘Future Astronaut’, that clinched it. Grandpa Steve was on the moon. They were all content with that understanding.
There’s no way of knowing whether preparing the children in the way we did has made a difference to how they have handled his death, but I feel we gave them as much help as we could before we all were plunged into the sadness and shock that consumed us.
We continued to include them and involve them as the days went by after he died. They were here every day, seeing me and Grace coping with the waves of sadness and tears that kept coming, we didn’t hide anything from them. Amelia taught us how her ‘invisibility cloak’ worked – if she wants to do or say something secretly, she puts her hand up over her face so she can’t see anyone, which, to a three-year-old mind, means obviously nobody can see her either. It became the custom that as my tears welled up, her darling little face would look concerned and she’d come over to me and say, ‘Do this Nana’ and put her hand in front of her face to show me how to be invisible until I had composed myself again.
Working out how to explain to children about the funeral and what it was for and why it was happening was interesting. Bearing in mind that Grandpa Steve was on the moon as far as they were all concerned, the palaver involved with the funeral seemed to them to be quite unnecessary. We now had to try and get them to understand the difference between Grandpa Steve’s body, which required something to happen to it, and Grandpa Steve who was everywhere and also on the moon.
That was a challenging car journey as we drove them to the woods where his body was going to be buried to show them the exact spot that we’d chosen. They had a lot of questions. Somehow, we navigated the explanations to a satisfactory level, although the ‘Why can’t we see his body?’ question ended up being answered by ‘Because of coronavirus’ – although true, that was probably not really enough of a reason to satisfy the curiosity of a six-year-old.
We talked them through what was going to happen, and showed them where, and reassured them again that Grandpa Steve’s body couldn’t feel anything anymore, so being buried was absolutely fine, it wouldn’t hurt him and was actually a really good thing because his body would become part of nature. And that his eyes couldn’t see anything, and he didn’t need to breathe anymore, and he wasn’t in his body now and all of those other logical things that if not talked about might just confuse and frighten little minds.
They seemed to get it and were accepting that they’d be at school while all the mechanics of the funeral happened but that they’d be picked up early and brought up to the woods to see the grave once Grandpa Steve’s body had been buried there.
And that’s exactly what happened. Grace and John left once the coffin had been lowered into the grave, and they collected the children and Juno, and brought them back to the burial ground. Everyone had gone, and the gravediggers were filling in the grave, so we had a little while to fill in before we could take them there.
We took them to the labyrinth, the one I’d help to create all those years ago, and I explained how the way the labyrinth works is that you take all your sad thoughts and pick up a stone and walk the labyrinth carrying it until you reach the centre, and then you leave the stone and all your sad thoughts right there, and walk back out the way you walked in.
They absolutely loved it, and, accompanied by Isabel and Rachel the photographer and a bottle of champagne, Leo, Albert and Amelia walked the labyrinth with me and their mum and their aunt and uncle, all of us carrying our stones and thinking our sad thoughts about the man we all loved who was no longer with us. And then we all went back through the woods to find Steve’s grave, and the children blew bubbles and sat on his bench and laughed and played.
The next day we all sat together and watched the film of the funeral so they could see what had happened while they were at school and nursery the previous day. They thought the swearing was very amusing and loved seeing the motorbikes and the coffin and the fact that ‘Big Andy’, Steve’s friend, managed to be facing the wrong way when he lifted the coffin at the end of the ceremony and had to do a scramble as the other bearers started walking out of the front of the building while he was facing the back. By watching me help lower the coffin into the grave they could relate completely to the memory of Kizzie’s body being placed in her little grave. It was just what they needed to complete their thought processes I think.
We’ve made it a weekly event, going to the woods together. They’re learning that they need to calm down and walk nicely instead of shrieking and shouting and climbing trees because there may be people visiting other graves who are feeling sad. They’re watching the turning of the seasons and understanding that all of life is a cycle of being born and living and dying. I’m so proud of them all. They’re learning that love doesn’t end with death, it just changes, and that’s such an important lesson to have learnt so young. They’re learning that you can have really, really sad feelings but that they don’t last forever, and most importantly of all they’re learning that by talking to each other when we’re feeling sad, we don’t have to cope on our own. I’m so lucky to have these little people by my side helping me get through these days.
It would be forgivable to have missed the muted announcement of the publication of the Competition and Markets Authority’s Funeral Markets Investigation Final Report. The culmination of a major review of the funeral market in the United Kingdom which began in June 2018, the Final Report is a weighty 497 page document, with 24 appendices – and a glossary for good measure.
The CMA’s findings were published on the 18th December, the day before the Prime Minister announced new Tier 4 ‘Stay at home’ restrictions on much of the country, effectively cancelling the promised Christmas gatherings for millions.
The strange festive period that followed, together with the continuing daily onslaught of bad news, the confusion and apprehension about the capacity for the NHS to cope with the rapidly rising numbers of Covid patients and the wrangling about schools opening or closing – the fast-changing pace of the strange new world we all find ourselves in means that the CMA’s final findings on the issues in the funeral sector have receded to what seems forever ago.
Most people, even those closely involved with funerals, won’t have found the time or the mental bandwidth to read every word in the report and other accompanying documents yet.
The enormous effort that Stephanie Canet and her team at the CMA have put in over the last 30 months, their scrupulous analysis of the existing landscape in the funeral sector, is in danger of being consigned to a shelf or a file on a computer, to be read at a later date. This is a mistake, and we would urge anyone with any interest in the funeral sector to at least take the time to read the Executive Summary (it’s only 10 pages) and familiarise themselves with the headlines at least.
The findings of the CMA are significant, and the issues identified in their Provisional Report (slightly shorter, at 472 pages!) are upheld in the Final Report. These are outlined below:
- Due to the inherent emotional distress people experience when arranging a funeral, they understandably tend not to spend time comparing providers. They typically choose to use a funeral director that has been recommended or is familiar to them. For crematoria, people generally select one that is closest to them geographically.
- Pricing and product information is not provided consistently by funeral directors in a way that allows people to compare different offers.
- The fees charged by funeral directors and crematoria increased at a rate well above inflation for at least a decade.
- Most people believe that funeral directors are regulated, but that is not the case in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The investigation found that, although many funeral directors meet good standards, some are providing unacceptably low levels of care of the deceased.
- Regarding crematoria, there are high barriers to entry in the form of the planning regime, as well as building and operating costs, meaning that crematoria are generally few and far between. Most people have little or no choice about which crematorium to use as there is often only one option within a reasonable distance.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic during the latter stages of the investigation meant that the findings were necessarily impacted and affected, and the CMA team were unable to develop their proposals for remedies such as price control. This will likely have caused sighs of relief in boardrooms around the country, where the prospect of a cap on prices had been met with horror and strong pushback.
From the CMA’s Press Release about the report: ‘The Final Report sets out further detail on the CMA’s proposed remedies, which are intended to support customers when choosing a funeral director or crematorium, and to place the sector under greater public scrutiny.
- an obligation for all funeral directors and crematorium operators to disclose prices in a manner that will help customers make more informed decisions
- that information must be provided in advance of a customer committing to purchase a service so that people know the price they will be charged and the key terms of business – for example if a deposit is required
- that customers should be made aware of any relevant business, financial and commercial interests of the funeral director, and that certain practices – such as payments which may incentivise hospitals, care homes or hospices to refer customers to a particular funeral director – will be prohibited
- a recommendation to government to establish an independent inspection and registration regime to monitor the quality of funeral director services as a first step in the establishment of a broader regulatory regime for funeral services
The CMA continues to have serious concerns about the sector and one of the conclusions of the report is that it should consider whether a further market investigation reference is needed when conditions are more stable.’
Martin Coleman, CMA Panel Inquiry Chair, said:
“Organising a funeral is often very distressing and people can be especially vulnerable during this time. That’s why our remedies are designed to help people make choices that are right for them and ensure they can be confident that their loved one is in good hands.
The CMA will be keeping a close eye on this sector to make sure our remedies are properly implemented and help it to decide whether further action is necessary when circumstances return to a more steady state.”
We think that this is an eminently sensible reservation to make. The funeral sector will inevitably be changed by the impact of Covid-19, and we are already extremely concerned at a new development that has begun to take hold in recent months.
We are seeing tech companies stepping into what is perceived as a gap in the market, offering low-cost funerals organised online and by phone, and heavily promoting themselves with targeted Google Ads to appear as if they are a local funeral company to the viewer.
Most of these companies outsource the collection and care of the person who has died to funeral companies locally and often have absolutely no connection with – or interest in – the provision of quality support or care for bereaved people. The subcontracting bit frequently isn’t mentioned, or is buried under flowery language referring to ‘our partners’. If you look on the ‘About Us’ section of the website it is rare to find out anything about the people behind the business.
Today we have been informed about one company that is advertising heavily and appears to have branches all over the country. On their website, the team in each location is shown as the same three people, which sets an alarm bell ringing loudly! Coverage from Tyneside to West Sussex with personal service from a team of three is quite something!
Concerned members of the Good Funeral Guild have looked into how this particular company is operating, and, after some detective work, it appears that they are registering as a virtual office, waiting until the Google pin is provided, then cancelling the virtual office subscription and continuing to use the pin in order to appear under searches as a local funeral provider. Needless to say, the CMA have been informed about this.
Bereaved people, who are frequently, as Martin Coleman observes, especially vulnerable, could easily find themselves choosing a low cost company that appears to be local, thinking they have found a nearby funeral provider with a website, displaying prices online and that therefore they must be ok.
This is a new and worrying development that the public need to be made aware of, a variation on the long standing lack of transparency that has plagued the funeral sector for decades. The new, faceless, tech based ‘disruptors’ bring nothing to the table other than devaluing the real, vocational work done by genuinely good funeral providers throughout the country, the ones who provide continuity of care, listening ears, impeccable care for the people in the mortuary and personal connection with the clients they serve.
The GFG strongly welcomes the CMA’s continuing involvement and oversight of the funeral sector. We believe this will be invaluable in monitoring the changing market and hopefully raising public awareness about the potential pitfalls of choosing a funeral provider online.
It is a sad fact of life that where there are vulnerable people and money to be made, there will always be those who will take advantage. Ongoing scrutiny of the funeral sector must continue, as the shape and face of predatory money makers styling themselves as ‘funeral directors’ evolves.
In the meantime, and possibly completely unconnected with the CMA’s investigations, there have been some high-level changes at some of the large corporate funeral companies over recent months.
At Dignity PLC, Chief Executive Mike McCollum left his role suddenly in April, taking a hefty £600,000 payoff with him.
His departure was followed by two independent Non-Executive directors, Jane Ashcroft and David Blackwood, who left the Dignity Board in April and June 2020.
In December (on the 18th actually, coincidentally the day the CMA published their Final Report) two further longstanding directors, Steve Whittern, Finance Director and Richard Portman, Corporate Services Director both left abruptly.
Dignity’s current, smaller Board of Directors appears to excel in strategy, finance and executive skills, but none of their bio’s make any mention of funerals. This seems odd, given that they proudly proclaim themselves as ‘The UK leader in funeral related services’ on their website.
Oh, and earlier in the year, Dignity’s Head of Insight, Simon Cox, quietly left his post in October. Regular readers of the blog may recall the bizarre juxtaposition of the Natural Death Centre Charity on Dignity’s stand at the National Funeral Exhibition in 2019, which apparently came about largely as a result of Simon’s efforts to revamp the reputation of the funeral behemoth by cosying up to a much admired and pioneering charity founded by the late, great Nicholas Albery. It caused significant consternation at the time – we wrote about it on the blog here.
Over at Co-operative Funeralcare, the longstanding Director of Funerals, David Collingwood, left abruptly (and apparently reluctantly) – again, on 18th December, the day that the CMA published its report. It seems that the powers-that-be at the big beasts in funeralworld felt that a shake-up at the top was needed, just at the very time that the CMA went public with their findings.
Perhaps the fact that both companies’ strong disagreement with the CMA’s provisional findings was not taken into account in the CMA’s Final Report meant that heads had to roll? See Dignity’s response here and Co-operative Funeralcare’s response here. Or maybe it was simply coincidence. Who knows.
There’s clearly a huge shift and change happening as Covid-19 gouges its scars on our collective consciousness. It’s inevitable that the way our society responds to the huge numbers of premature deaths will change the landscape of funerals forever, and the companies that provide funeral services will change their offering as a consequence.
It may be that the fact that the CMA’s investigation was interrupted by the pandemic will turn out to be beneficial to us all in the long run. The ongoing oversight promised by the CMA may help ensure that the future of funerals, whatever it turns out to be, will be a better one for all of us.
Time is slowly drifting by. It’s 12 weeks since we married. Nine weeks since Steve died. Seven weeks since his beautiful funeral. The days come and go, shorter and shorter, darker and darker, until Monday’s shortest day, the Winter Solstice. Yule, the ancient festival marking the victory of light over darkness, the end of the cycle of death and decay and the beginning of a new cycle of growth.
I spent some time on Monday creating a Solstice mandala on Steve’s grave. I was there at midday on the shortest day of the worst year of my life. Nobody else was visiting the burial ground, the rain had been so persistent that even though I was there during a brief few hours without rain, every gust of wind sent a shower of raindrops down from the branches above. My only companions were a pair of deer tentatively browsing among the undergrowth. The only sounds were the pattering of falling droplets and some occasional birds sounding alarms or singing in the distance. It was good thinking time, as I let the pattern emerge, picking berries and fir cones and leaves from my bag full of foraged natural beauty that I’d been collecting over the previous week.
As I worked, I let my thoughts drift. I don’t have any yardstick to measure where I am or how I’m doing. People ask me how I’m doing a lot. And I usually take a moment to try and work it out. Mostly I think I’m ok. And occasionally I’m very, very not ok. As I laid handfuls of holly berries on the moss covering Steve’s grave, I thought back to Friday last week, the last time I was not ok.
I had volunteered to donate plasma after my positive test when Steve was diagnosed with Covid 19 at the end of September. A nice lady had eventually phoned me at the beginning of December and asked all of the screening questions, eventually telling me I was suitable to be tested for antibody levels to see if I had sufficient to become a donor. The appointment had to be delayed while I went into a second bout of isolation after my grandson brought Covid home from a supply teacher, and shared it with his mum and siblings, but the appointment was set for the 18th.
I hadn’t really thought through how I would feel until I was driving to the blood donor centre in Edgeware. It was the first time I’ve driven anywhere that I hadn’t been to before since Steve died, and I was aware that this made me feel a bit nervous. When I found the centre, I parked the car and walked in and then was suddenly hit by a wave of emotion that I found hard to push down.
It was the first time I had set foot in a hospital since he died. Before he was taken to the hospital where he would battle against Covid, I had accompanied him to every single appointment at every single hospital, from the day he was first investigated for cancer. Every single one. Even when I wasn’t allowed to go in with him to see the GP or consultant, I went as far as I was allowed, and then waited, in a corridor or in the car. And now suddenly I was in a hospital again, on my own. I found that I was shaking.
I managed to compose myself behind my mask and sat in a corner trembling slightly, waiting to be called. A lovely Irish nurse came and got me, and took me into a room and started sorting out the pin prick test and the phials for blood, chatting away as she did. And then she asked me if I knew how I’d contracted Covid. I told her that we thought that Steve had contracted it at a hospital appointment and then passed it to me and some other close family members. Of course, she asked if we were all ok. I hesitated a moment, and then I told her. She looked at me in horror, and started to cry, and to hold my hand and thank me and bless me and told me how brave I was to have offered to donate plasma after losing him. And I cried too and couldn’t stop. The two of us just sat in this little room while I cried with a kind stranger, a nurse who was in the front line of contracting Covid every single day. It was the first time I had had to identify myself, to define my new self in the light of what has happened, to tell my story to someone who had no idea. And it was really, really tough.
It didn’t get any easier even when I had managed to stop crying and sniffing – lovely Maureen whispered to a colleague about ‘the lady over there’, and for the whole of the next forty minutes while I was in the centre, nurse after nurse quietly approached and came over and gently offered their condolences and their thanks. My head was scrambled at this. They were thanking me? These wonderful NHS staff who were putting their lives and their families’ lives on the line just by going to work every day while the virus rampaged through the community, they were taking the time to come to me and say how sorry they were for my loss.
It was too much kindness, if there can be such a thing, and I sat back in the special chair with hot tears just rolling down my cheeks into my mask, probably rendering it completely useless. There was nothing I could do to stop the waves of deep, deep sadness.
When they had drawn enough blood, I left and drove home slowly, aware that I probably wasn’t in the best head space to be on the road and came home and just sobbed. The kindness of strangers was overwhelming, it had unlocked a dam that had obviously been building inside me for days and weeks.
I let myself think over this as the mandala reached completion. The pressure of living in grief, during the resurgence of the virus, listening to constant dreadful news, worrying about the new Tier 4 (in which I and all my children are now living) the cancelling of Christmas, the lorries causing Kent to come to a standstill, the borders closing against the UK, the approaching Brexit deadline with the very real possibility of no deal, the queues, the food shortages – as I write this, on the 22nd, everything is chaotic and broken. Nothing is normal, for anyone. Nothing will ever be normal again. Now even the faint feelings of hope – of the vaccine on the horizon, of my having antibodies that might help keep me and my family safe as we face the winter months ahead – has evaporated with news of the virus mutating and the questions about whether this new strain will be even deadlier than the first. Life feels precarious and dark and lonely and fearful.
In the kindness that tipped me into tears last week, there was a reminder that everything cannot stay dark and fear-filled forever. We are all bruised and numb and afraid, scarred by the experience of living through a pandemic. Ten months of fear and worry is etched into our national identity. Sometimes it explodes out in anger and denial, in refusal to comply with rules, to wear a mask and to stay apart from others, in belief in conspiracy theories and nanotechnology and 5G masts and all sorts. Other times, in other people, it is absorbed into the DNA, the thoughts, the anxiety, the strain. The isolation and loneliness. Many of us are bereaved and grieving while trying to cope with the unbearable pressure of everything having changed. And amidst all of this, there are kind people everywhere, behind the masks that we now have to wear.
There is such symbolism in those words. Behind the masks. Behind the masks there is compassion and caring and kindness and love. It takes just a second to see it when you need it.
As I stood and looked down at Steve’s grave and the beautiful pattern that had emerged from my bags of berries and leaves, something shifted. The tears came again, and I walked crying through the silent dripping trees and found the labyrinth. I had helped create it when I worked at the burial ground, and after Steve’s funeral we had walked it with the children and dog, drinking champagne and etching a memory of that day in all our minds.
I entered the mouth of the labyrinth, and walked carefully on the slippery mud, carrying a stone in my hand, thinking my sad thoughts – as we have taught the children. It takes a while to walk the meandering pathways, and your thoughts settle as you make your way to the centre, back and forth in a walking meditation.
When I reached the centre, I spent a few minutes on my own. A robin sang somewhere nearby, but otherwise all was still and silent. A memory drifted up into my mind. It was so clear. I remembered seeing Steve walking up the path to find me there, working in the labyrinth, on the morning of his father’s funeral in 2010. I could see him walking towards me smiling, with his strong stride, smart in his suit and black tie and beautiful black overcoat. It was a lovely memory, and I found myself unexpectedly smiling at the thought, at him smiling at me right there. For the first time, I was feeling a memory that wasn’t accompanied by the prickling feeling of sadness, the weight of loss that has come every time I try to think back to happy times.
I looked down at the little tree stump in the centre of the labyrinth, the destination that you walk to thinking your sad thoughts, where you leave the stone and all your sad thoughts behind and walk out again lighter and stronger. A jumble of stones and coins left by others who had walked to the centre littered the damp wood, with saturated leaves and twigs. It looked uncared for and purposeless, so I rearranged everything into a pattern that I liked, and then traced my way back out of the labyrinth and walked back to the car.
The clouds above me didn’t break, but something inside me was content. Some order had been returned. There are patterns everywhere. There is light after darkness, always.
‘Communitree’ – artwork created by young offenders at HMP Cookham Wood
Steve and I came across an exhibition of work by young offenders while we were in Anglesey in 2018 and this piece caught my eye.
One of the things that has surprised me the most over the last months is receiving the most wonderful, supportive messages and beautiful words from people who I hadn’t expected to hear from. Some are people that I hardly know, others who I have had a light relationship or friendship with, some who I have almost lost touch with, some who I have never met and only know virtually through online connections. Over and again, at moments when I have been feeling tearful and lonely, a message has arrived from someone or a phone call has come, completely out of the blue, and broken the spell of isolation by reminding me how connected we all are, even to those we don’t hold close to us.
It’s as if this enormous loss that I am experiencing has opened up channels of communication that I never knew were there before I woke up in this new existence. And somehow, I find myself feeling immensely close to a handful of people who have been there, just checking in, asking how I’m doing, reminding me that they’re thinking of me. Sending me a poem, a suggestion of a book to read, a link to a YouTube piece of beautiful music, a parcel, a gift, some flowers. Dropping me a message or an email with thoughtful, generous words of encouragement and kindness that lift my mood from the ebbing and flowing of sadness that underpins every day.
It’s beyond special, this instinctive reaching out that has been happening. It has come from people on the periphery of my life, but I think, without exception, all of the people who have been checking in regularly are people whose hearts have been broken, people who see a reflection of their own pain as they contemplate me and my grief. There’s a recognition that I am now one of them, one of the people who know the depths of sadness, deeper than anyone can describe or explain. Maybe each of these unexpected kindred souls are paying forward a kindness, a connection that they felt when they were at their bleakest and lowest. Maybe there is just a natural big-hearted impulse that comes over people who have learned to live with their pain and who want to help salve the pain that others are feeling.
To all of you, I want to say thank you. It means so much. It’s like having a soft touch on my hand, an arm put around my shoulders, a warm hug. There’s something about receiving such gentle reminders that I am being thought of that buoys my spirits. When the centre of gravity in your life has suddenly vanished, and you feel adrift and alone, knowing that people are sending you their thoughts and their kind wishes is like feeling a lifeline to the shore, it’s a new way of feeling your way back to safety and to solid ground.
Looking at the messages on my phone, there are some extraordinary, intimate conversations that have evolved between me and some of these lovely thoughtful people over the weeks since Steve was taken to hospital for the last days of his life. There’s a freedom in answering honestly about how I am truly feeling in response to someone asking me if I’m ok, and there are truths and raw emotions shared in the space that is opened up by someone pressing ‘send’ when they risked intruding or bothering me at a terrible time. To any of you who have worried that you might have intruded – you didn’t. You helped keep me steady.
I think what I’m trying to convey in this post is that, even if you think you might be being pushy or intrusive or over familiar with someone who is going through the worst of times, if your instinct is to reach out to them, do it. Your message might light up their phone at exactly the time they need to hear what you have written. Your words might be exactly what they need to straighten their back and keep going when they feel like curling into a ball and crying. Just knowing that you are thinking of them may be enough. It is for me.
I am beyond grateful to all of you who have taken the time to check in. Along with my close family and dearest friends, who have been constantly there and who have carried me through this, I have a new cohort of companions who I feel alongside me. They are the ones who keep gently calling my name, through their texts or their messages, the ones who keep reminding me I am not completely lost. Thank you. You know who you are.
Almost two months have passed. Seven weeks since Steve died. Seven weeks of rolling waves of emotions, of reflection and remembering, interspersed among the detritus of the life that was before. One of the things that resonates strongly with me as I walk every day is just how much grief I have been immersed in, for so long.
We grieved together, for the future that would now not be, from the moment Steve was diagnosed, in June 2018. He had been having tests and investigations after he had finally given in to my nagging at him to go and have a PSA test done earlier that year. Bill Turnbull and Stephen Fry had both publicised the need for men of similar ages to be tested, and I had kept on at Steve to get a test booked. His GP was reluctant initially, but after insisting, the test was done and came back at too high a level. (With a strange synchronicity, Bill Turnbull is the presenter on the radio as I write this piece about how he inadvertently played a part in our story. I will always be grateful for his bravery in going public about his cancer – if he had not done so, Steve would undoubtedly have died much earlier than he did).
We were in Newcastle when the phone call came – I was attending a conference and Steve had come too, back to his place of birth. He had spent the day out and about with our friend Colin, while I sat through the boring presentations, and then the hospital called him and asked him to attend an appointment the next day in Oxford.
We drove home immediately, and the next day I went with him to the urology clinic where we were told he had aggressive prostate cancer. He had had no symptoms at all. If he hadn’t had that PSA test, we wouldn’t have known. But now he was presented with a choice, hormone treatment or surgery. Neither guaranteed a cure. We were now talking about a future living with cancer and discussing options which were the least-worse treatment. Everything changed that day. Our future was re-written.
We met with both the oncologist and the surgeon, and after considering all the implications, decided on surgery. From that moment, grief walked into our lives and took up residence. I didn’t recognise it then though. There was too much new information to take in, too many questions and worries and concerns, so the silent presence of a new feeling, a new sense of fear and dread just slipped below my radar. But looking back, that was when we both felt that cold sense of change.
So much was taken away from us – yet as I write those words, I am conscious of how lucky we were to have had it in the first place. The immensely close physical relationship that we had always had moved effortlessly into a new way of being, but there was sorrow for us both at the change that was imposed by the surgery, and the sepsis that followed, and then the discovery of escaped cancer cells in the lymph nodes. Despite Steve’s hopes of avoiding hormone treatment and its associated loss of all libido, his post-op PSA test showed that the cancer was already outside of the prostate and spread into his lymph nodes. The operation had been too late. In order to live, he had no choice other than to accede to testosterone annihilation by injection.
For a man like Steve, making the conscious decision to become ‘neutered’ must have been horrendous. He knew what hormone treatment entailed. He knew that he was acceding to the loss of his virility, his manliness – the very essence of his identity. That must have been a secret, aching grief that he carried alone.
The side effects were awful, but he dealt with them. Things that in retrospect seemed minor, like losing the hair on his chest and his arms confirming the massive changes that were taking place in his body in the effort to starve the cancer cells from their fuel – things like that irritated him, the hot flashes were debilitating, the increasing fatigue and muscle aches were burdensome, but the loss of intimacy between us was such a huge thing.
We didn’t ever really talk deeply about how he felt in this new, eunuch existence, I didn’t want to add to the burden he was carrying by digging into how he truly felt and making him talk about it, but I know this was the heaviest of weights for him to bear. For me, the sadness at the end of that part of our life was far outweighed by the need to have him still with me, and from everything I had read about his cancer, I knew how perilous his time was.
Fast forward through 2019, embedded hormone treatment and weeks and weeks of daily radiotherapy and further surgery and more problems – all the while, the grief for what we had planned for our future shadowed us. Neither of us were foolish enough to believe he would outrun the cancer cells that had spread in microscopic malevolence around his body, and when either of us heard the well-meaning phrase ‘Oh prostate cancer is the best kind of cancer to have, you don’t die from it, you die with it,’ we both reacted in the same furious way. Steve had a seriously aggressive type of cancer, and for him to have lived as long as he did is testament to the brilliant care that he received from his multi-disciplinary medical team at The Churchill Hospital. It happened to be found in his prostate. It was therefore labelled prostate cancer. Take it from me, prostate cancer is not the best kind of cancer to have.
At the beginning of this year, with news filtering from China of a new and deadly virus, and a sense of the winds of change gathering, we began talking about giving up the flat he rented and that we loved in Banbury and moving back to my house in Denham. We were paying out for two properties, and financially and practically it made sense. We decided that Steve could stay in our caravan in Banbury for three nights a week while he worked in the area, and we could save £1k a month by moving back to the house, so we gave notice and started packing. It was the end of three happy years in the most beautiful flat in a Georgian manor house, and yet more loss of what was. And the week after we finally moved in, the country was put into lockdown.
There’s too much to say about the huge collective grief for what used to be that has washed over the world with the spread of Covid. I can’t even begin to find the words, grasping as I am from this strange new place where I find myself. But there was definitely a visceral impact on us, as on so many others, of the loss of freedom and security and safety that came with the virus. The loss of normality. The loss of hope. Layer upon layer of loss and grief just kept piling up, magnified by the fear all around as this invisible killer virus silently tore through humanity.
We made the best of it, and we were together day and night, so it was a precious time, looking back, but it was also the time when Steve’s health began to deteriorate and his PSA levels to rise relentlessly as the cancer took hold in his bones. Our time together was punctuated by hospital appointments as the spread of Steve’s cancer mirrored the spread of Covid throughout the country. In June, his lovely gentle oncologist told him that time was running out, and that he now had months not years left to live. That was the only time that I saw him crumble. He had hoped so much for several more years of life. My heart ached as I held him. The shadow of grief was now sitting foursquare in our faces, grinning and counting the days.
And those days between June and October were saturated with loss for him. The loss of strength, of energy, of steadiness. The loss of ease and comfort, and the sapping weariness of living with increasing pain. The loss of dignity. The loss of his sense of himself as he looked at his strong, muscular legs now wasting into thin, unsteady limbs. The loss of the little freedom he still had. And finally, with the onset of Covid, the loss of the most basic of things, the ability to breathe without help. I watched helplessly as he was taken away from me by the cancer and the coronavirus, clinging on to him, supporting him, holding him up, caring for him, loving him as hard as I could until eventually, I could do no more for him and had call for help for him. And then, I had to let him go with the paramedics. I knew that day, the moment I picked up the phone to ring 111 that I was doing something irrevocable. I knew that they would take him away. And I knew that he would never come home.
That morning, when the ambulance drove away, it was as if something inside me came apart and the years of not recognising that I was grieving just poured out in an incoherent, sobbing mess. The physical pain was too much to bear. The shadow of grief had formed into a tangible beast that enveloped and consumed me. Anticipatory grief became reality, and it was the worst experience I have ever had. I felt ripped apart, physically in pain in my heart, broken and helpless and hopeless and bereft. Unknown to me, I was also sick with Covid, my test would come back the next day confirming it. It was, I think, the worst day of my life.
I had lived with so much unacknowledged stress and anxiety, and I had done everything I could to keep him safe, and I had failed. It is a heavy weight to carry. But just as Steve faced his mortality unflinchingly and without fear, I cannot run away from facing a life that is now carved by loss and grief. There are layers and layers of it, each of different depths and textures, and I must gradually uncover them and examine them in order to not let them confine me or define me.
At the moment, I am wrapped in the most visible, outer layer of grieving for the loss of my man, who died so bravely and so gracefully in my arms. In time, I will be able to go beneath this visible grief of widowhood and begin to unpick the fabric of the grief that I lived with for so long without realising. This is, I understand, part of the work that I have to do in order to become the person I will be without him.
In amongst all the swirling newness of life without Steve, there is also an extraordinary amount of stuff that sits silently waiting to be attended to. The stuff that he accumulated in his life.
Mostly, it’s his clothes. Clothes are hard. Clothes are memories, of where they were bought and where they were worn and things that were done while wearing them. Clothes feature in precious photographs, linking the garment in your hands to the moment the camera captured, however long ago. Clothes absorb something of the wearer, they carry a lingering scent. Steve’s clothes carry the scent of him. I can’t smell anything at all with my post-Covid sense loss, but I know that his scent is still there. I long to smell it again. But I’ve started packing away his clothes very gradually for donating to a charity shop. I find it’s taking me far longer than I thought it would.
Some things are easy. Some things are associated with his cancer, and I don’t want them around to remind me. Pyjamas and slippers bought for hospital stays went straight into one of the first charity shop bags. All of the other things that were connected to his increasing pain and indignity went into the bin the day after he died, I needed to get rid of them, they affronted me with their existence and the fact he had needed them, and I bundled them up and out in a kind of controlled fury.
Other clothes belong to the far distant past or were easy to make instant ‘keep or throw’ decisions on. His suits, from the days when he was working at the IAM, more than a decade ago – they might find a new owner who needs to dress smartly. A ridiculous number of ties. His work polo shirts, complete with company logo – I doubt anyone will want them, but you never know. I found I could be quite pragmatic about these clothes; they weren’t strongly associated with him, with us. Shoes were easy too. What would I do with his shoes? The only ones I have kept are the ones we bought together for him when we went shopping for our wedding, beautiful, blue suede, Hugo Boss boots.
So now I have nine bags full, ready to go to the charity shop. In amongst Steve’s suits and shirts and jeans are also clothes of mine, clothes that I won’t ever wear again but had been keeping ‘just in case’ – for a future that now isn’t going to happen. Evening dresses, and cocktail dresses and smart stuff that I might have one day worn to go somewhere with him. Clothes that are too big for me now after the strain of the last year – bought when we were ‘fat and happy’ and oblivious to what was coming. Beachwear and bikinis that I wouldn’t be comfortable wearing now, without his approving and protective presence saying, ‘Who cares? You are gorgeous’ when I wondered whether it was appropriate to be parading my almost 60-year-old body on the Portuguese beach we loved so much. High heels. He loved me in them. I’m not wearing them again, not now he’s gone.
And I’ve kept just a few of his clothes. Carefully selected because they are just so him – his beautiful Jaeger black cashmere coat. Some of his linen shirts, because I’ll wear them. The jeans and shirt he wore for our wedding. His black leather jacket that he was wearing in the photo on the front of the order of service for his funeral – the order of service that wasn’t an order of service at all, just the lyrics from the music he’d chosen. His dressing gown. His T-shirts. I hope that if my sense of smell ever comes back, I’ll be able to smell his scent again on his T-shirts. His Blue Knights waistcoat that he carefully pinned all kinds of pins to, including a little prostate cancer man pin. His biker jacket that I wore to ride pillion with Lucy on the motorcycle hearse, next to his coffin. Important clothes that carry embedded within them moments to treasure and memories to cherish.
As far as the rest of his stuff, I think it will take months to go through and re-home. He has more tools than anyone I’ve ever met, and that’s without the contents of the three garages he rented. With heroic effort from Steve’s son, the ‘stuff’ that he’d accumulated and stored in the garages has now been reduced to fill just one.
The house is full of his things, bits and pieces that caught his eye and that he bought from antique shops, things that belonged to his parents, books and albums, memorabilia from different eras in his life, framed photos and pictures. Everywhere. I can’t even begin to think what’s up in the loft, I just have memories of handing him bags and bags and boxes that he squirreled away up there when we moved back here.
Group photos from his police life, the life before we met, had been hung in pride of place in the living room. He wanted to feel he was at home here, in my old family home that we moved back in to together in March, just before the first lockdown was announced, and creating a ‘Steve’ corner meant a lot to him. After he died, they seemed somehow out of place. He didn’t need them to be there anymore. And I didn’t need to be looking at photos of the young Steve amongst all those long ago, unknown fellow officers. There was nothing in them that spoke to me. I took them down, before the funeral, and replaced them with a beautiful copper coil clock that we had been given as a wedding present by Lucy – the funeral director who looked after Steve when he died. That felt like the right thing to do.
All the guidance on bereavement and grief tells you not to make big decisions during these early weeks and months after a death has occurred. But I think, for me, I am ok to be deciding on what is surrounding me. I’m trusting my instincts as I work my way through the days, and I instinctively feel that making space is what I need – in order to feel him more closely.
If there isn’t a strong resonance with him – his memory, his energy – when I pick up a piece of clothing or a book or a picture, then I know I can let it go. I intuitively feel that if there is less of the unimportant stuff of his imposing itself on me, then the pieces that I choose to hold on to will be even more precious, more meaningful, more important to carry forward. That won’t be the same for everyone, but I feel like it’s right for me. And I feel like it’s the right time to do it now. Now the charity shops are opening here again, I’m starting to clear the space around me. And that feels like a good thing, in this strange new place I am in. I feel I can breathe a little more easily.
I took this photo on November 4th, the morning after Steve’s funeral. I was out walking before sunrise, on my own with my thoughts.
As the inky blackness of the night sky gradually changed and lightened, and the orange tint of sunrise spread across the horizon, there was something so reassuring about the rising of the sun. The symbolism of light overcoming darkness and a new day beginning seemed poignant and pertinent as I walked over the frosty fields, trying to sense how I felt.
Before Steve died, I had worried about what it would be like, in the days after his death. We’d known for some months that he had terminal cancer, and I had been occasionally allowing myself to try and think ahead to what life would be like when he eventually succumbed to it.
I was afraid that, when he was dead, I would wake up thinking for a split second that he was still alive, and that I would have to remember each day that he had died, but this hasn’t happened. It seems that while I’m asleep, my subconscious doesn’t forget that he’s gone, so I don’t have to go through that re-remembering. I really hope that this continues. It’s a relief not to have to consciously remind myself of what has happened.
Walking the dog before the sun comes up has become something of a habit in this new, bereaved existence. I am waking really, really early, often 3.30 or 4am. This is a new thing. No matter how late I’ve gone to bed, nor how tired I am, whether I’ve had a drink the night before or not, I wake up with a start, and that’s it, my day has begun. I’ve learned to get up and get out and walk, early, before the rest of the world gets up.
I’m blessed to live in a semi-rural location, so there are fields and woods and footpaths all around. Within five minutes of the house, I can be walking along the canal or across the golf course, with just birdsong for company, and Juno, our rescue dog (who belongs to my son but who has become my surprised but delighted early morning walking companion).
We walk for miles, returning home as others, who keep more normal hours, are setting off for their morning walks. This suits me absolutely fine; I’ve found I don’t want to get chatting to anyone at the moment. If we do meet another early riser, smiling and nodding seems to be enough, early morning people seem quite undemanding of social niceties.
I am finding that walking moves me forward in more than just a physical way. Emptying my mind and just keeping putting one foot in front of another as we wander different routes each day creates space for the jumble of feelings and emotions to order themselves. I noticed this, that first day after we buried Steve’s body. I realised that I needed to keep giving myself this time on my own, moving my body but letting my mind rearrange itself as it needs. As I walk, I feel lighter, less dense, less contracted into painful and hard-edged grief.
Sometimes, tears stream down my face, as the deep sadness of being without him wells up and overwhelms my thoughts, but as quickly as it comes, that sadness passes, and other thoughts and memories take its place. I just let them all come and go, like bubbles drifting in the air and then vanishing. I have learned to do this. It’s instinctive and yet unfamiliar to me, but I know it’s the right thing to do, to just allow feelings to drift in and out of my mind.
This solitude is something I need, almost crave, while at the same time I need company, and distraction. I’m trying to ensure I get adequate of both, although I haven’t got the balance right yet. And I don’t want to be far away from home, I feel I need the sense of safety and security of familiar things around me, to be safely tucked away from other people, to be able to pick up and put down things as I feel inclined, not to have to talk to anyone if I don’t want to. It’s an effort to make myself go anywhere at the moment, but walking in the early morning feels like a good habit to form. Silence and birdsong and the sound of water are strong medicine. And watching the sun come up on another day reminds me that every day I am alive is a gift.
A personal story of grief
There is a beautiful little book by Baptist minister Richard Littledale, called Postcards from the Land of Grief which my friend Clare mentioned to me a few weeks after Steve died.
I recognise that description, with a jolt of familiarity – ‘the land of grief’. This is where I find myself, a new arrival in an unfamiliar place, where the language, the sounds and the sights and the scenery are all unknown. (Probably the scents and the flavours and tastes are all new too, but thanks to Covid, I can’t yet detect them.)
And in this new landscape, this new land, I am on my own. Despite the constant envelopment and surrounding of my family and friends, despite all the love and support and kindness I am having poured over me and into me, somehow, on a very elemental level, I am elsewhere. Alone.
The person I love – my partner, my soulmate, my lover, my best friend, my husband – the man who walked through life alongside me, isn’t here. He’s gone somewhere else completely, without me, and he’s not coming back.
His going is what catapulted me here into this new land. And this is where I now have to make my home forever. This thought is too huge to allow myself to think for more than a second or two. I feel unanchored and unsafe, and unsure of who I am or how I am, or how I will be. I’m adrift in a strange sea, without any idea where I am, or where I’m going.
And yet, instinctively, I know that to settle here and to find myself, to find the person I will become, I need to articulate my experience. I need to write. I need to share this with other people, because there may be something, just one small thing that I describe, that resonates with someone else, someone who is also wandering, lost and alone, through an unknown landscape of bereavement.
With the blessing of my fellow directors of the GFG, I am going to start a series of personal blog posts, which will appear here on the GFG Blog. I’m going to write about my journey in this alien new world, chronicling my thoughts and experiences as I work out who I now am.
I’m going to write, not just for my own benefit, but in the hope that I might maybe help others catch something to hold onto.
I’m going to write because that’s all I can do, describe and articulate being in this strange new world. Perhaps, in doing so, I can help others who will find themselves here one day. Perhaps something in my writing might be a way-marker that hints that another has passed this way ahead.
The series will be called ‘Absolute Beginner’, because that is exactly what I am. Despite all my knowledge of the theory of grief and bereavement, this is the start of my own personal journey, my learning of grieving though living it. I am an absolute beginner at this.
And the subtitle will be ‘A personal story of grief’, because that is exactly what it will be. This is my story, my personal experience, and I am hugely grateful to be able to share it on this platform.
I hope that when the words come, they will be good ones.
Time. Time and space and dates and days.
Right now, I am finding these measures all bent out of shape. My perception is warped by profound events that I have experienced since the last post I wrote for the blog, in September.
But I can see a thread that binds the dates and days, and stretches through time, bringing the past into sharp focus, and blurring recent days into an age ago.
November 3rd, 2010
I was the manager of the largest woodland burial ground in the UK. A beautiful place that I had been part of since before planning permission was granted. I loved it there. We had created an ofrenda, an altar, for Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – in the stunning Woodland Hall.
On the altar on November 3rd that year, the day after the Day of the Dead, were many photos and offerings to those who had died. Among the photos were pictures of my partner Steve’s parents, who had both died earlier that year. He had brought the photos there and placed them himself, among the colourful gifts and food and offerings.
The ofrenda, before the photos and offerings were placed.
November 3rd, 2012
I was asleep in our flat. I heard Steve’s voice calling my name. It was pitch black. The flat was on fire, and Steve had woken to the sound of the smoke alarm. He had seen the living room ablaze, and tried to put the fire out, before stumbling to the front door to get a breath of air through the acrid black smoke. The door slammed shut behind him. Somehow, he broke down the door and felt his way along the walls towards the bedroom, shouting my name. He kept calling until I woke into the thick choking smoke and fumbled my way towards his voice. I can hear him now, calling urgently ‘Just come to my voice, keep coming’. His lungs were burned with the amount of smoke he inhaled, calling and calling me. He was in hospital for five days. He saved my life.
We kept the clock from the living room that had melted in the heat to remind us always of how lucky we were to be alive. And from then on, we celebrated November 3rd as our joint birthday. The day we should have died.
November 3rd, 2020
I sit in the Woodland Hall. The same beautiful building that I had watched being created and lovingly built by Graham Brown and his team, all those years before.
This year, on November 3rd, the day after the Day of the Dead, there was no ofrenda in the Woodland Hall. Instead, before me was the coffin, draped in the flag of the Metropolitan Police, containing the body of my darling man.
He had died from Covid-19 on October 18th. The day before his birthday. Three weeks after our wedding day. He had been living with cancer for two years and had been told it was terminal earlier in the summer. Immediately after his divorce was finalised, we had booked a wedding, at the first possible opportunity. It was the happiest of days. And the last day he was well. Three days later he tested positive for Covid.
Time shifts and stretches and contracts. The past crashes back and imposes itself on the present. The man I love, the man who had spent so many sunlit days in that woodland with me, the man who has been the centre of my world for so long, is dead. Everything has changed.
I have much to write about the extraordinary experience I have been through.
About being given a terminal diagnosis. About facing mortality full on, fearlessly and bravely. About the complexity of anticipatory grief. About pain and suffering and sadness and worry. About the unbelievable gift of planning a funeral together, before illness sweeps you up into a blur of anxiety and worry about pain relief and equipment and aids. About death during a pandemic. About knowing that when you made the phone call for help, you would be setting in motion an unbearable parting. About having to isolate when you have tested positive and being alone and going almost mad with despair at being apart from the one person you need to be with. About the relief of being allowed to visit him but despair at the knowledge that the reason for this was because he was going to die. About sitting vigil with your soulmate as they journey through their last hours. About the similarity of being at a deathbed with being in a labour ward, as the moment of death / birth approaches. About watching death steal across the face of the man who is part of my soul. About the extraordinary transformational power of a good funeral. About navigating social distancing when you’ve been bereaved and when all you want is to be comforted in the arms of your friends.
There is so much to write. But I need to let time give me the perspective. Right now, it’s too new. It’s just three weeks since he died. It feels like a lifetime.
I just wanted to let readers of the blog know the reason for the GFG’s recent silence, at such a profound time for our society. And to tell you that it is possible to have the most perfect, perfect funeral – even when it seems everything is against it.
I will forever be grateful to Lucy Coulbert, of The Individual Funeral Company, who cared for Steve and for me as if we were her own. And to Isabel Russo, who wove together the most beautiful authentic ceremony, navigating sensitive family dynamics and an extraordinary number of swear words. And to Colin Liddell, Louise Winter, Shaun Foulds, Rachel Wallace, Suzie Wight, Ian Franklin, Alex Meaden, the Blue Knights – and everyone else who helped make Steve’s presence so vivid, and his funeral so extraordinary.
The film of the entire funeral can be watched here – and just a reminder, there is a not-insignificant amount of profanity involved, just as Steve wanted.