Denial. Anger. Oh sod it, let’s drive to Bournemouth. Supposing the Johnson-Cummings bereavement model is correct, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross didn’t just isolate more stages of grief than a busy person can reasonably accommodate, she entirely overlooked the potential of shopping, betting and outdoor drinking to dispel her last three (bargaining, depression and acceptance).
As for expressions of compassion and respect, you can only conclude, ministers having so ostentatiously dispensed with them, that they consider these, too, to be outmoded cultural practices, relics of an age when death was taken too seriously and the bereaved were massively overindulged. If the extent of the Johnson government’s commiseration goes beyond brutal platitudes on the NHS website (“Most people experience grief when they lose someone important to them”), I missed it.
In the absence of official concern, it has been for bereavement charities to recognise, in advice to survivors, that Covid-19 deaths – shocking, premature, remote, stripped of consolatory ritual – are especially pitiless. “A bereavement from Covid-19 is likely to be a very challenging kind of bereavement for most people,” says Sudden, a charity-run service for the unexpectedly affected. Now some of those people are demanding a public inquiry. Matt Fowler, a co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, lost his 56-year-old father, Ian, on 13 April. “The crucial fact,” he has explained, “is that every one of those statistics was a living breathing person, taken before their time and leaving an empty void in the lives of their families and friends.”
Did the government ever appreciate this? Judge, perhaps, from Johnson’s “last gasp” ventilator project, his – repeated – “squashed sombrero” gag, his health secretary’s elation over horse racing: “wonderful news for our wonderful sport” (30 May, 215 more deaths).
Even in the final press briefing, Johnson couldn’t be arsed directly to address the families of the further 121 people whose deaths he was breezily “saddened” to announce. I’d wondered if he might propose, if only as a propitiatory gesture, some ceremonial to remember Covid-19’s victims. Something between the 10 days of mourning recently observed in Spain (where 27,000 died) and the national day to grieve suggested by the Marie Curie charity.
Nothing. If there is to be public mourning, it is evidently delegated to the bereaved and their sympathisers. And if a well-spaced, sombre procession of thousands of mourners in black masks, preferably accompanied by Handel’s dead march, is the only way to stop Johnson literally claiming death as a victory, why not?
Though the affectless presentation of mortality graphs and rolling averages has insistently recalled Stalin’s “a million deaths is a statistic”, the association may be unfair. The Soviet mass murderer neglected to add that a million deaths is, when you think about it, way better than two million, and still less tragic if most victims are likely to be (as Cummings reportedly noted and strongly denied) pensioners, probably with co-morbidities that would shortly have carried them off.
That disgusting calculation had actually acquired some respectability before More or Less, the BBC’s exemplary experiment in rigorous political scrutiny, explained that with current life expectancy, even an 80-year-old, obese, male smoker could hope to live for above five years. On average, for an 80-year-old man, it would be nine more years, 10 for a woman.
Not that grieving families needed reminding that the people they mourn have been, from “herd immunity” onwards, trivialised and dehumanised by politicians who thereby added moral to practical failure. The bereaved are, I imagine, particularly sensitive to Johnson’s reminders that doing nothing would have led to genuine tragedy and catastrophe.
True, an honest acknowledgment of fatalities might be difficult for an adequate leader, let alone for an idle narcissist with inquiries to frustrate. But by remembering UK Covid-19 deaths much as Turkey likes to remember the Armenian genocide, Johnson and his men don’t only advertise their personal limitations, they ignore the processes of grief and, on the current scale, its likely impact on their reputations.
For once, following the deaths last year of my father and of a close friend, I may have some vaguely relevant experience. Fifteen months after Dad died I think of him every day, replay the hour before his death, can be crushed by music he loved, keep wishing I’d tried harder – tried at all – with his cryptic crosswords. Both his recorded co-morbidities and the return of horse racing have failed to bring respite. Eight months after we lost Deborah Orr, her friends remain bereft, speculating what she would make now, of all this. And these were individuals who did not die unvisited, or speak their last words into phones, and who were formally mourned by people who could console one another.
In fact, the legendary British awkwardness about death is no longer, in my experience, the prevailing rule. Strangers and acquaintances, as well as friends, offer understanding. Only the government now seems to miss that, for the Covid-bereaved, the isolation of emergency regulations, compounded by uncertainty and blame, must make their grief more savage and acceptance – whatever that is – more elusive.
While even the caring one, Rishi Sunak, expresses phoney delight over the reopening of pubs, academics are considering the wider health consequences when grief is experienced, as one study puts it, “on an unprecedented scale that has the potential to have devastating individual/societal effects in the short and long term”.
Nor will it help project oblivion that, after Covid-19 denied them funerals, families are planning memorial events, sometimes buying them as a package from funeral providers, to be held within a year of restrictions being lifted. Day after day, large emotional gatherings will remember the lives of people who might, given a responsible government, still be with us. Will these mourners, as the existing leadership expects, forgive and forget? Would you?
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist