A minute’s silence will be held at noon on Tuesday as a “national day of reflection” is held to mark the first anniversary of the UK going into lockdown, and to remember the 126,000 people who have died during the Covid pandemic.
Three people reflect on the challenges they have faced during the last year and what they have learned.
‘Before the pandemic I had never been by someone’s bedside when they were dying’
“The demand for our services has gone through the roof,” said Imam Faruq Siddiqi, 38, the Muslim chaplain at the Royal London hospital in Whitechapel. “When people need spiritual support they often turn to faith and religion, and, with fewer or no visitors allowed in hospitals, that’s where we come in.”
Siddiqi has been working at the hospital for 10 years and is part of a multifaith chaplaincy team providing emotional, pastoral or religious support to patients, family and staff members. “Before Covid, people would ask to see me but not often,” he said.
“Normally I would pray with a patient and then leave them with their family, but now I’m with them for longer – sometimes on my own. Before the pandemic I had never been by someone’s bedside when they were dying.”
He feels there has “definitely been a change” in the need for emotional support over the last year. “The amount of deaths in such a short period of time is unthinkable.”
Although Siddiqi has been trained in emotional support, he’s learned to adapt : “I have daily supervision where I call my manager and speak to them about what’s happened during my day.
“The staff often ask: ‘Faruq do you ever go home?’ It’s difficult to leave when someone is in need. Providing some comfort is more important to me than resting.
“I think people who lost someone in the first wave are just starting to grieve. It can be very emotional and there are times when I’ve been in tears. My motto is to help people, bring comfort and be compassionate – regardless of faith. It’s traumatic enough to lose somebody but there’s a double trauma here when people cannot be physically present.”
‘I used to hate it but I’ve learnt to embrace silence’
Avril Honan is one of those people who could not be with a loved one. Her mother, Frances, died of Covid the day after her daughter’s 40th birthday. “She was only 64 – if it wasn’t for the pandemic she would have lived longer,” said Avril who works for a university student union.
Frances, who lived with Avril and her wife, Fiona, in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, was a nurse for 40 years and had a history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In December 2019, she caught the flu and did not fully recover. She was admitted to hospital in mid April and on 3 May, Avril’s birthday, she was told she only had 24 hours to live. “Mum didn’t tell me,” said Avril .“But when I looked at her through the window on that day, I just knew. It was very emotional.”
Like many others who have lost loved ones Avril has found it difficult coming to terms with her mother’s death. At first she felt she was coping but just before the six-month anniversary she said she had a “total meltdown”. “It just hit me like it was day one all over again. Everyone told me that grief isn’t linear so I got help, went on antidepressants, had counselling and learned mindfulness.”
She says, gradually, she is learning to be alone: “I used to hate it, but through lockdown and grieving I have learnt to embrace silence. Being on my own has helped me get to know myself better and appreciate what is left.”
‘Do your best and do what you can’
For many older people, adapting to spending more time on their own has been one of the main challenges of the last year.
“Whatever it is, if you can’t control it, just get on with it. Do your best and do what you can,” is how 84-year-old Jenny Mawer explains her approach to the pandemic. This attitude combined with a deeply held belief in the importance of human connection has helped her through the last year.
Mawer, who lives in Wiltshire, has not been able to see family, as her daughter is shielding in London and her son and grandchildren live in America, however she has been keeping busy. Since her husband died in 2011, Mawer has always volunteered; until a couple of years ago she was a tower guide at Salisbury Cathedral, taking visitors up 332 steps into the ancient roof spaces, then a gardener at Salisbury museum, in the cathedral close.
It was while tending the garden, while socially distanced, that Mawer and the three other members of the team noticed a change. “One of us said we were doing more chatting than gardening,” recalls Mawer.
“What we found was that people wanted to stop and talk and they would find a reason for doing so. It would be more than: ‘what’s that plant and can I grow it in my garden?’
“I think they wanted to move themselves mentally out of lockdown, if only for a short time, and talk about something completely different. So we would just allow people to do that and have a bit of a break from it all.”
Mawer says “her life has been about human connection”. Her career was in communications, and when lockdown restrictions put a stop to gardening, she would take daily walks around her village and chat to people she knew. Mawer feels that if she’s learned anything during the pandemic it’s that you “have to make an effort”.
“Things aren’t going to come to you. I’ve been lucky all my life and things have come to me one way or another. So now it’s no good thinking: ‘I’m alone, I’m lonely,’ because if you make an effort the antidote to loneliness and being alone is out there and the people that you can share it with – are happy to share, because it helps them too.”
Mawer is looking forward to returning to the museum garden soon but for the last two weeks she has been volunteering at one of the vaccination centres in Salisbury. “I would have started a lot sooner,” she said. “It just took a long time to get through the system.”