Repressed grief is bad for the soul: Covid victims must be commemorated – Evening Standard

Posted By on November 11, 2020

W

hen I learned on Saturday of the death of Rabbi Lord Sacks, I was deeply saddened by the loss of one of the nations wisest intellectual and moral leaders and of a friend and mentor who had, over the years, shown me great personal kindness. I also recalled a particular conversation we had had many years before about Schindlers List, which, in 1993, was about to be released.

A quarter century since Steven Spielbergs film first appeared, it is easy to forget its sheer cultural impact. There had been many documentaries about the Holocaust, but this was the first major Hollywood dramatisation of its horrors. Was it ethical to turn the greatest crime in history into a blockbuster?

Rabbi Sacks was emphatic that it most certainly was. The eyewitness survivors of the Shoah were dwindling in number, just as some of the physical evidence was decaying. Presciently the web was still in its infancy Sacks foresaw that there would be a resurgence of Holocaust denial. What mattered, above all else, was that the memory of what had happened not fade. Spielbergs fine movie would ensure that, in years to come, hundreds of millions of people billions, probably would see what had taken place and honour the dead.

Today is Remembrance Day, 102 years since hostilities in the First World War were ended formally at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This year, the principal ceremonies, held, as ever, on Sunday, were much-reduced in scale by pandemic restrictions which meant that all events had to observe social distancing and that the traditional march past the Cenotaph involved only 30 veterans.

The nature of the virus means that casualties have often died behind closed doors, without loved ones

Yet the spirit of commemoration seemed more vivid than ever. Though Remembrance Day has its roots in the conflict of 1914-18, its significance has deepened and broadened over the years: first, to commemorate the fallen of other wars those who were killed in the fight against Nazism, in Korea, in Afghanistan, in Iraq; and second, to ritualise the importance of remembrance itself, in a world that is captive to the moment, trapped in the digital millisecond and increasingly amnesiac.

We are forgetting how to remember. And we need to reacquire that fundamental human capacity, in an era of competing complex narratives, misinformation and unprecedented volatility.

For the worst possible reasons, this requirement is urgent. As heartening as the possibility of a vaccine becoming available before Christmas undoubtedly is, the cruel fact remains that 50,000 people in the UK have already died of Covid-19 and, tragically, that number will increase.

The nature of the virus means that almost all of this has taken place unseen. Its casualties have died behind closed doors, usually without even the comfort of loved ones at their bedside. As a consequence, the process of collective bereavement has barely begun. Each of those 50,000 was not a data point on graph but a person, with a life, a personality, family members, a circle of friends, colleagues, stories to tell, a world unto themselves. Each of those worlds has been lost.

Credit is due to those, outside government, who have already tried to organise a Covid Memorial Day. But we are lagging badly behind other nations in this respect. As early as March, Italy observed a minute of silence for its coronavirus victims, while Spain held a 10-day commemorative period in May.

Repressed grief is bad for the psyche and, if you believe in its existence, the soul. Buried pain will find a way out, like steam rattling a pressure cooker. Sooner or later, we shall have to come to terms with the losses of 2020, in a manner that involves more than addressing governmental failures (as necessary as that is). We shall have to find a way of acknowledging the scale of what has happened, and of doing so with both emotional candour and dignity.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt conceived in 1985 by the US activist Cleve Jones is a great example of such an undertaking. So too is the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. We shall need an equivalent initiative before too long when we emerge from lockdown in the broadest sense of the word to address with honesty the collective trauma of what has happened.

To endure, a society must exist in time as well as space. It must honour its dead, not least to give those yet to be born the best chance of a better life. It is upon this, above all, that we should reflect on this Remembrance Day.

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Repressed grief is bad for the soul: Covid victims must be commemorated - Evening Standard

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