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More than just a number

By Steph Turner

A photo of my favourite bench in Crystal Palace Park.

It’s getting addictive. Watching the news, checking your phone for updates. Looking to see how many Covid-19 cases are in your area, the country, how many across the globe. Every day we hear more numbers. That’s how coronavirus is being measured: in exponential graphs.

Tracking this has obvious importance. We need to see where we are and if we’re managing to ‘flatten the curve’. But what this also does is reduce this disaster to figures rather than the names of these people. In doing this we also keep the focus solely on the story of their deaths rather than their lives.

Whilst it would be impossible for journalists to capture all these characters, and many families may of course prefer to remain anonymous, it makes me, and others, think that there must be a better way of celebrating these people’s lives. Working in the end of life care sphere has always presented this challenge; how do we memorialise people and celebrate people’s lives in a death denying society? How can we begin to talk about death when we can’t even say the word? How can we embrace death and loss as part of life, in the same way as birth and growth is celebrated? How can we bear the pain of loss in order to move with it? How can we begin to see endings as part of the whole?

This has come up in another form in a recent project i’ve been working on with a hospice and a supported living accommodation provider. We’ve been exploring creative and non-form-based ways to explore and record people’s end of life wishes. Often, the forms that people need to complete to let their medical professionals know about where they would prefer to die, or if they consent to resuscitation, are in a format suited for the clinician rather than the person themselves. The questions are rigid; they don’t allow space for thought, creativity and emphasis, nor do they allow for the person to be seen ‘in the whole’ when recording these wishes.

For me, what’s missing in all the above is storytelling. How can we find ways to celebrate people’s lives, both in the present and when they’ve died? How can we give professionals a snapshot of that person as a human being, rather than their diagnosis or the kind of procedures they would or wouldn’t be happy to receive? How can we commemorate lives lost during this epidemic and for both Covid-19 deaths and any others? How can we change the headline from the story of their death, to the story of their lives? How can we be brave enough to look through the lens of death in order to see life?

I’m working with the Loss Project to find ways of memorialising people who die in our world of this new normal, Covid-19 or not. Over the coming weeks, we will be creating online spaces and resources as well as quiet, personal ways to contemplate and come to terms with loss and grief as well as celebrating lives.

Make no mistake, there will be huge ripple effects from the deaths we now collectively experience. Perhaps this will help us all to ‘wake up’ to the preciousness of life and the reality of death as part of life

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