Half a million Covid bereaved need more than a minute’s silence


“Like an overnight blink they say it’s all over! It’s bloody well not!”

As the Taoiseach announced in January the extra bank holiday and the lifting of many restrictions, the anger of my friend Siobhán’s message to me lit up the phone. I had sent her a text saying I was thinking of her, and all who had lost loved ones during the pandemic. Siobhán’s mother, Eileen, was one of the first Irish people to die of Covid in March 2020.

The anger in Siobhán’s reply resonated strongly with me. Maybe you can “turn on the economy” or “turn off restrictions”, but you can’t just “turn off grief”. It’s not like flicking a switch.

I have found myself reflecting on whether we are giving all the loss of the pandemic the respect it needs for the country to move forward.

Since March 2020, 6,087 people died in Ireland from Covid. A number still, sadly, climbing, although thankfully more slowly.

In that same time about 62,000 others died from other illnesses but many with their final days affected significantly by Covid. Limited access to loved ones. Sterile strangers in full PPE. No holding. No tender touch in final days and hours. While doctors and nurses and staff in care homes did their best, we cannot fool ourselves into believing that a WhatsApp call, or a stranger sitting by a bedside is what any of us aspire to as we breathe our last. So different and alien to how we once were.

My neighbour Marie, a woman in her 80s, with no relatives in Dublin got a phone call at 3am. “Come quickly, he’s going,” said a voice on the other end.

Three weeks previously Marie had brought Brian, her husband of 64 years, to the emergency department. She hadn’t been allowed to stay with him or visit him. No one had told her that he was at the end of his life. She brought him into hospital and never saw him again alive. She has never been told whether there was anyone with him as he breathed his last.

This is not how we do death in Ireland; this is savage, brutal separation.

And those left behind bereft, some 496,000 individuals (including myself who lost both my father, Fionnbar, and brother Frank during December 2021) bereaved over the course of the pandemic. A city-sized group larger than Cork and Waterford together.

Disrupted funerals, without wakes, a handful of mourners; all this loss and grief impacted by Covid. Although new ways to mourn and honour the dead emerged, the reality remains that many people have had to grieve in isolation, disconnected from their networks of support.

How do we move on from here? There is no nation’s heart big enough to hold it.

Our government is planning a national commemoration day for March 20th. This, we are told, will include our traditional wreath laying and a minute’s silence. I fear this may be an opportunity missed or, worse, cause needless pain.

A once-off wreath laying and a minute of silence is all very well, but a people’s grief is not for packaging. Grief experts recognise that grief doesn’t go away, doesn’t exist on a convenient timetable. Rather, we grow our lives back around it, like moss on stone, patiently and over time.

The collective national bereavement we have demands a collective national response. Not to do so will be to fail as a civilised and compassionate society.

At Irish Hospice Foundation we have been at the forefront of issues surrounding dying, death and bereavement for 35 years. Never has our work resonated more than during the pandemic and never has Ireland faced such a challenge with grief. So, with our learnings from grief, including the National Bereavement Support Line, the MSc we teach in loss and bereavement, and our arts and cultural engagement programme, we would call for much more than a minute of silence or the laying of a wreath.

Based on our experience we are calling for a national programme that would harness the power of the community and cultural responses to contribute to healing and remembrance and to support national recovery. It would be inclusive of all deaths whatever the cause. This will allow for sensitivity to Marie and Siobhán and to all whose experiences of end-of-life care, mourning and grief were affected during the pandemic.

It will take time and planning, imagination, and involvement at a local level. Art can help; it has a way of reaching parts of our grief that nothing else can. Personally, I was deeply moved by House of Memory, a wooden cathedral made of pallets into which people were invited to enter and leave a token to honour a loved one. It was created by architect David Kelly and Architecture at The Edge as part of the Galway International Arts Festival. It gave people somewhere to go, to share, to remember.

The author Arundhati Roy says: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

After all the pain and suffering of the past two years, it is incumbent on us as a nation to reflect on our experiences during the pandemic and to use what we have learned to maximise the potential for every person and their family to die and grieve well, whatever the cause and wherever the place. Above all, never again should we allow people in our hospitals and nursing homes to die without a loved one there by their side.

As we head towards the longest bank holiday ever, am I the only one afraid we will miss this opportunity to collectively remember, commemorate and reflect?

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. In the shadow of each other, we live.

Jean Callanan is chairwoman of the Irish Hospice Foundation