Love and loss in pandemic times: Valentine’s Day 2021. A personal reflection

Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day and this year it will be markedly different for all of us. Doubtless Hallmark et al will still be much used though I suspect it will be as a result of mainly online card orders; there will be expensive Take Away Valentine dinners and no doubt the florists will still make needed revenue from exorbitant costly red roses. But for many Valentine’s Day will simply not be the same. For thousands it will be a day of emptiness and sadness, regret and remembrance.

This time last year the Guardian newspaper carried a story entitled ‘Love in the time of coronavirus. ’ It described the attempts of the crew of the Diamond Princess cruise ship to make Valentine’s Day as normal as they could for the thousands of passengers who were quarantined on the vessel as it sat off the Japanese coast. You might remember the story of how one by one crew and passengers were struck down by this new virus which had swept China and was beginning to affect many countries across the globe. By Friday 14th last year 218 passengers and crew had shown positive results among just over 700 who had been tested. As the journalist commented: ‘The ship’s once carefree community, who until two weeks ago were making calls at ports across the far east, is now host to the biggest single cluster of coronavirus cases outside China – and by some margin.’

A year on and such instances seem almost unexceptional if not sadly routine as 2.7 million people have succumbed to this deadly virus with millions more having been infected.

This last year has witnessed such a degree of loss that it can almost be hard to contemplate. Indeed I came across a story this week which seemed to encapsulate the way in which our normal has become abnormal; but also the way in which folks are trying to hold onto something familiar and trusted when all the usual markers of life seem to be swept away.

Deborah De La Flor has been a florist in America’s Florida coast for over 40 years. She has never experienced a February like this one. “At a time when someone is sending you an ‘I love you’ card, someone is sending an ‘I loved you’ card,” said De La Flor,

As America’s Covid death toll sits near 460,000, florists are in equal measure creating wreaths and bouquets in a strange synchronicity of love lost and love held.

At about the same time last year I was meeting with colleagues in my role as chair of the working group creating Scotland’s National Bereavement Charter. Few of us could have expected that the very way we grieve and deal with loss as a society in Scotland would be changed out of all reckoning in the months ahead. Traditional means of remembering and celebrating the lives of loved ones have been altered beyond familiarity; we have lost ritual and the rhythm of farewells, and despite strenuous efforts a sense of the functional and mechanical has crept into moments of departing. I fear we are in danger of losing the comforting power and the necessity of mourning. This past week I attended a funeral and the restriction on numbers, the inability to be with people afterwards, to share memory and laughter, to hug and console, makes the whole experience of funerals during lockdown so hard for people.

Today in this weekly blog I want to reflect on two issues, the first is that of care home visiting, the second the wider implications of loss during the pandemic.

At the start of the pandemic care homes closed their doors in order to save lives and protect residents. Many managed through great professionalism and dedication to do just that. But the virus which we even then called the ‘novel’ coronavirus was so new and different that despite all efforts it got in and destroyed with horrendous harm. Throughout all the early weeks and months as numbers increased and we experienced the full impact of the first wave the doors of care homes remained closed to family and loved ones except sadly at end of life. Then over the months small steps were taken to open up, first outdoors and then indoor visiting, the latter only really starting with testing machines sent to care homes in mid-December. Some homes were confident in going further than the guidance, others were more reticent and concerned. Caution and protection were the bywords, but it became increasingly clear to many that so much avoidable harm was being done by the desire to protect at all costs as deterioration and decline, loss of motivation and connection became so evident.

Throughout these months many families and relatives have experienced anguish and heartache being separated from their loved ones. Others have been too frightened to even contemplate going into the care home. They have lost moments of togetherness that will never be re-captured. Care home staff and managers have struggled with the stress and strain of trying to do the right thing for all amidst growing pressures of demand.

All those involved in the tragedy of coronavirus in care homes share one desire – a safe restoration of life and contact as it used to be as soon as possible. Before the virus I could count on one hand instances of dispute and disagreement over family contact. Today the key relationship between family and care home staff is much more fragile than anyone would ever want. I have never met anyone who deliberately and consciously for no reason wants to keep people apart in our care homes; rather the best care homes have always recognised the role of family as not a ‘visitor’ but as a part of their community.

So as has been reported in the media many have been working hard to try to change all this despite the fact that we are in the midst of a second wave and living with a strain which is much less easy to control, manage and supress. Doing nothing has and is not an option. Moving forward ending contact should only be in exceptional circumstances never the norm. People must be safely brought together so that we end what has been a nightmare for so many. How we do that is what is so critical at this time given that we cannot simply go back to the way we were.

As has been reported in the media and noted by the First Minister, and in all likelihood next week, new guidelines for the restoration of meaningful contact will be published. They have been developed in wide consultation and partnership with family representatives, care home providers and Government clinicians and advisors. They are about working together to restore. What is important about them is that they are a steppingstone to something closer to normality. They are incremental in their nature but their outcome is clear and definite – the restoration of meaningful contact.

But in order for them to mean anything I am convinced that we need to make this journey together, supporting one another, assuring when there is anxiety, reducing fear, motivating through example and reducing the risk of creating rejection. In my experience the process of helping an individual whether staff or family member overcome fear will be one which requires us all to listen to the views of others, work through our shared intent, and together move forward. It is a time for individual conversation to address the needs of each person recognising that a care home is a community of multiple voices, it is not a time for blanket decisions and policies that forget the needs of each unique individual.

So as I sit here on the day before Valentine’s Day I think and know that this is our singular most important gift of love this year – to restore meaningful contact between families and residents in our care homes. I know I and many others will commit all energies over the coming days and weeks to enable that to happen. In so doing we will address fear, reduce anxiety and manage emotion. In so doing we will hopefully listen more and talk less.

I reflected above about how this has been a year of crippling loss and that is not only for the thousands who have died of coronavirus, but the thousands left without loved ones who have died from other conditions. It has been a harrowing and hard year with so many of us unable to grieve and say farewell in the way we have been used to or the way that has comforted us in the past.

I have written before about the need for a national day of mourning and I accept that we still have a way to go before such a formal national moment to remember can take place. But in all my work around bereavement and grief I increasingly feel that we need to come together – virtually and physically – to show one another the solidarity of our loving, remembering what has happened and is still happening. Maybe this becomes especially acute at this time of year not just because there are thousands who will be spending their first Valentine’s Day without the touch of the person they loved, but because we are coming close to the first-year anniversary of this pandemic.

Marie Curie have recently launched a #DayofReflection for the 23rd March 2021. They want it to become an annual day which will give us all ‘time to pause and think about this unprecedented loss we’re facing, and support each other through grief in the years to come.’ On the Day they want to hold a national minute of reflection at 12pm as well as other events and supports. You can find information at

Such markers and events will not be for everyone but I think collectively we do need to do something as we try to deal with the pain and hurt of the last year.

There are too many who will never be able to re-capture the lost contact and touch which this virus has prevented them from experiencing; there are too many who have died alone with only the love of stranger to console and hold them. We cannot re-write that story but what we can do is to support one another, make the change that needs to be made and be determined to be there to comfort and hold up hurt.

In Finnish there is a concept called “sielunmaisema” – which literally means “soul-landscape” or “soul-scene”; it denotes a particular place that a person carries deep in the heart and returns to often in their memory. I think we all need to create such a space or place, external or internal, where we can cradle the moments of memory of those we have loved and lost, of those we are separated from. We need such a place as a society for I fear we will rush beyond remembrance to recovery without thought for the pain hurting at the centre of our community. But we also need to nurture that space for our own mourning and grief, and that for many might not be for a person, but for a dream, a role, a relationship, which the passage of time and the cruel reality of the last year has taken from us.

Valentine’s Day 2021 will be different, for most of us, it will be virtual, but I hope it will also be a time when if we need to we can take space to mourn, if we want to we can commit to action, and that we may all discover our own sielunmaisema. I end with words of a favourite Finnish poet Helvi Hämäläinen

For one day I’ve the right to mourn,
for one day I’ll shut the windows of the sky,
I’ll dismiss the blue,
I’ll raise a black sun to mark my mourning.
For one day I’ll wilt the flowers,
for one day I’ll silence the birds.

I’ve the right to mourn one day, I’ve the right to mourn.

Donald Macaskill