No life can be measured in a few inches of newsprint. A death notice captures only the outline of an existence, a sketch robbed of life’s colour. Yet it is space enough to suggest a flicker of the sorrow felt come the end.
My maternal grandmother, a prying, curdled old woman, who welcomed visiting children as a driver might greet a wasp flying in through the dashboard vent, never read them in that way. She did not teach me very much about life. But I reserve a grudging gratitude for how she kindled my interest in the dead.
Newspaper announcements, those little stubs she called “hatches, matches, and dispatches”, provided the ammunition for her inveterate gossiping, often about people she dare not have deigned to speak to in person. At home, however, she would audibly deliberate about those whose jubilation or suffering had brought them to page two’s foothills, a flurry of digestive crumbs spraying from between her false teeth to bless each judgement.
Lessons in empathy these were not. And yet from them grew a lifelong fascination with announcements. It is still the first page I turn to in a newspaper, and as a reporter, it has proven more than a frivolous preoccupation. There are always stories to be found. Nobody is really nobody.
You learn to spot trends. Harsh winters always add a column or two. I cannot, though, remember a time quite like this, when so many are departing at once. The notices arrive with customary economy, but in unprecedented numbers. The common thread of Covid-19 lends each word a greater weight.
I have read of long, fulfilled lives brought to an end by the virus, such as Helen Kay, the widow of John, a burly miner who rose to serve as Kirkcaldy’s provost. She was a much-loved great-grandmother of 104 when she passed away at a nursing home in the town last month. So too, I have read of lives that have known more suffering than most.
Margaret Anne Gauld, who died at Drummond Grange Care Home in Lasswade, endured the rigours of MS for three decades before contracting Covid-19. It can be hard for loved ones to capture the truth of such closing acts without becoming mired in their pain, but her family crafted a notice of such delicate grace, it reduced me to tears. “Anne Gauld has reached the goal of her faith and gone to be with God,” it asserted.
It is harder still to read those thumbnails announcing lives cut brutally short, the commemorations of which are composed in a shock of leaden, staccato sentences. Who can blame them? So many people never thought they would be asked to find the right way to say goodbye, so soon.
Now, however, is a time for preparedness. Few of us will emerge on the other side of the pandemic without experiencing loss, or at the very least, having been rendered unsteady by the ripples of grief emanating from the concentric circles with which we form our lives.
The notices serve bleak reminders that coronavirus not only steals those we love, but the rituals through which we find comfort. Funeral services pass unattended, Memorial gatherings are postponed indefinitely. We have never known death on such a scale, but we must also acknowledge the extraordinarily heavy burden of the complex, traumatic grief the living must bear.
So individual stories – lives well led, or joyously squandered – serve as proxies for how we mourn. Nobody is really nobody, even if the curious, inexact calculus underpinning news agendas shines more light on some lives than others.
A few days ago, I was privileged to write about Ann Mitchell, one of the last surviving Bletchley Park codebreakers, who died at the age of 97, shortly after testing positive for Covid-19. Hers was a remarkable story, and I suspect the reason it resonated so widely was the hurdles she overcame – the young girl growing up in 1930s Britain who defied dogma and prejudice to read mathematics at Oxford. The world was hers, and she helped save it.
Achievements like Ann’s are almost without precedent, and the inspiration they provide in vexed times is of incalculable value. But more than a hero, she was a wife, a mother, a grandmother. Every such bond, every such life, matters – regardless of whether a stranger might appraise them as humble or unheralded.
Jim Nicholson, a legendary obituarist for the Philadelphia Daily News, given to penning portraits of taxi drivers, dock workers, and poker-playing grandmothers, turned to a favourite rejoinder whenever quizzed about his choice of subjects. “Who would you miss more when he goes on holiday,” he replied, “the secretary of state or your binman?”
We are besieged by a relentless daily rhythm of graphs and statistics, and the numbers lost their emotional impact some time ago. Desolation on this level – the global death toll is the equivalent of more than the populations of Dundee, Stirling, Perth, and Inverness combined – defies all contexts. The psychiatrist, Robert Lifton, once studied the emotional detachment that allowed rescue workers to function in the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. “Psychic numbing” was the phrase he coined. It seems an astute summary of how many cope during these darkened, dazed days.
And there is no shame in turning away. We cleave to narratives of bravery, but each of us has a finite capacity for suffering. Do not blame those who shut out the world. Ask only that they do not give up on it. Remind them of the lives touched by those now gone, and the memories that abide. Call to mind the principles they stood for, the joy they brought, and the influence they exerted.
Tell too, those who, in the midst of the contagion, presume to offer a false choice between life and living. Tell them of death’s devastating touch, but tell them too that empathy will prevail. They are being taken from us too soon, the dead, but they have given us so much. Nobody is really nobody.