A Christmas pandemic: Loss and love
“In the winter of 1918 the terrible war was over. Jim was getting a lot better and wanted to become a mounted policeman due to his love of horses, it seemed that they could at last look forward to a normal married life. However, Carlisle and the country folk of Armathwaite and Cotehill were badly affected by the [Spanish] flu epidemic and no longer welcomed visitors from London. Jim, determined to spend Christmas with his wife and child, and New Year with his Scots family, managed to get leave. I was conceived during a happy New Year holiday, but my father caught influenza which turned to pneumonia. Because he was already in poor health due to the war, and because pneumonia was then a very serious illness for which there were no wonder drugs, he died on 30 January 1919 aged nearly 26.” – Marian Janet Nash (my grandmother)
I am in the midst of a personal project fashioning my dear grandmother’s typewritten memoirs into a book. Her recollections are principally a tale of three women – her mother, her and her sister – growing up in poverty in Chelsea, London. However, her story was born out of a war and a pandemic. 102 years ago, my great-grandfather Jim, recently recovered from war injuries and typhoid, was looking towards a brighter future with his young wife Jessie.
Winning the war had understandably dominated the nation’s thoughts until November 1918. The influenza outbreak was a cruel twist at the end of a cruel war. While there were public health measures in place to try and halt the spread of the flu, the First World War mindset was to grit your teeth and carry on. The British stiff upper lip firmly favoured in the face of adversity. People had already lived through four years of tribulations and the second wave of the influenza pandemic was exacerbated by celebrations following armistice. People who had endured so much massed together to celebrate the end of the war and though hospitals – overburdened and understaffed – struggled to cope there was little attention paid to the public health guidelines of the time.
I write this blog from my home in a ‘Tier 4’ restricted area in Essex. The guidance given to my great-grandparents in 1918 was not dissimilar to today’s advice – stay home, do not travel. My great-grandfather Jim did not follow this guidance, he and his young wife travelled to Scotland (by then a focal point of the pandemic) and there he caught influenza (Spanish flu). He travelled with the hope of a Merry Christmas, of a Happy New Year, surrounded by family and loved ones. He was gifted this. A month later he died.
A man who had stood for hours in damp, disease-infested trenches in France succumbed not to the brutality of war but instead to pneumonia caused by the flu. My grandmother never met her father. He would have never have even known his second daughter had been conceived. My grandmother’s memoirs are rich and full of life, but they are not about his life. Jim only features in the first chapter – she didn’t know him, I didn’t know him, yet that loss profoundly altered her life and perhaps all of our lives even four generations later. Jim left behind Jessie, a widow, to bring up two girls in a city with little left to offer following the war. My grandmother Marian describes Jessie as having considered suicide following Jim’s death, but she persevered through her depression and grief for the sake of her girls. I am grateful for Jessie’s courage and tenacity.
History tells us that the Spanish flu pandemic was far deadlier than the war, millions died from the flu. It feels crude to compare Jim’s situation with our own, we live in very different times. I find myself sat here with tears in eyes as I read my grandmother’s words though. I cry for her, I cry for my great-grandmother who faced such loss at such a young age, and I cry for Jim who did not live to make 26 years old. I cry for Jim who spent so much of his adulthood cold, miserable and far from home at war. I cry for Jim who died unable to breathe in a military hospital near Carlisle in January 1919.
I do wonder if we can learn something from history though. In 1919 it was not only Jessie grieving. There was a collective sense of loss, there was also a collective sense of anger. People wanted someone to blame: the public health authorities; the government; even each other. For most though, because of the arduous times in which they lived, this rage was internalised. The war was already too much to bear, the pandemic added salt to a raw wound. In 2020, we are yet to collectively acknowledge the grief and the loss caused by our generations’ pandemic of COVID-19.
COVID-19 has touched the lives of all of us, and there has been a growing global sense of discomfort. This discomfort is grief. For some of us the grief is a physical loss of a loved one, the natural heart-breaking grief that bubbles out of death and the hollow, sunken space death leaves behind. This grief is amplified in a year in which many have had to mark lives lost with scaled-back funerals. For all of us there is a deeper and harder to fathom sense of shared grief emerging too. With COVID-19, we are aware that something terrible is happening, but we cannot see it. It is an invisible adversary. We all have individual experiences of feeling unsafe, but never in my lifetime have we had this collective sense of fear. We are grieving the future that seemed certain, that now isn’t. We are grieving what we once took for granted, the bookmarks in our year that provide an anchor in our collective existence. For those of us that have just been told we are now once again to remain in our homes we are grieving not only the loss of Christmas, but the loss of all of our collective rites of passage and our normalcy.
History tells us that this is survivable. We will collectively survive COVID-19, though our global economy and our social structures will come away battered and bruised. But right now, we feel lost betwixt and between a hard place and an even harder place. Christmas for many was a symbolic lighthouse in a stormy and uncertain sea, something hopeful to aim towards at the end of a very difficult year. The news last night that millions of us will not get to celebrate Christmas with loved ones this year has come to many as crushing blow. We grieve physical touch, conversations that are not held in small squares on a computer screen but in person, and most of all we miss the certainty we once enjoyed without even having to think about it.
The crux of our grief is this nagging feeling that the world has changed, and it has. While COVID-19 will pass things will not be the same afterwards. Life will go on, but it will be a different life for all of us. This year long experience of a total loss of normalcy; the anxiety we all feel as we anticipate the economic toll the pandemic will leave in its wake; the unknown long-term effects on mental and physical health – these thoughts are hitting all of us, collectively. How we communally move forwards is what matters now. How we choose to respond to our grief is what matters now. Out of this I can imagine two potential outcomes, either a groundswell of anger and bitterness that births conflict or the hope of a collective recognition that we as humanity can be better and do better. I long for the latter.
At the heart of all of this is love. That is why we are scared. That is why we are angry. That is why we grieve. We grieve the lost moments with those we care most about. We long for connection.
My grandmother’s recollections are above all else a story of resilience and love. Jim died, and it was a tragedy. But Jessie survived, she fought for a better life for her and her two daughters, and out of the heartbreak of war and a pandemic she left an amazing legacy of love. Jessie, and the countless others who survived, chose to do well by each other and to go on living. Out of collective grief sprung collective hope and solidarity, collective strength. The world changed in 1918, but those dogged survivors changed with it too. Our situations are not the same, but our response could be. So, my plea this Christmas is to acknowledge the anger and the grief but not let it get in the way of love and collective healing. There is a time to throw stones, but now is not that time. Now, more than ever, we need to pull together in solidarity, grace and love.