The National Covid Memorial Wall at the Thames
Garry Knight/Flickr

The lost language of memorials

I am not going to write about my grief anymore. It isn’t helping, hasn’t changed anything at all. It isn’t cathartic, or healing. It leans too much into something I can’t bear – indulgent nostalgia, foisting your own memories onto unsuspecting readers. No more stories of long nights staring into the past and blacking out the future, no more mornings in the shower, heart lousy with loss, water running down my face in all directions. There has to be something else. The last two years have been spent wading in mud, and I long for dry land. I can feel, too, eyes glazing over even as I write the words. People grow tired of it; patience never, ever outlives grief. I cannot wear black and wail into pillows anymore. I must move on, before the world moves on without me.

So I should write about other things. The state of the world, maybe. The people I’ve noticed on my rare interactions with the outdoors and reality. Reactions to things other people have said or done, perhaps. Here begins the challenge, because it seems there is grief all around. The entire world is grieving for who we once were, the lost year and more, the people who left us. What else but grief would have us listening, rapt, to anything Dominic Cummings had to say – his previously derided nerd-venom now an elixir because he appears to be singing a tune we like. What other than the madness of loss could have us arguing for days over the Prime Minister’s horrible wallpaper, the straw that finally sends the camel to the spinal unit after month upon year upon decade of trickery, misdemeanour, and the general air of someone who got dressed on the waltzers. We’re like widows who remain stoic all through the service yet, at the wake’s running buffet making a mess of their kitchen, catch sight of their husband’s old nail clippers and suffer an emotional collapse. But if there’s one thing I never want to write about in too much detail, it’s politics. I care both too much and not enough, can never find the sweet spot of keen interest and impartiality that could make writing about politics anything other than highly frustrating. It’s like getting in a shower in an unfamiliar bathroom and trying to work out the water temperature – 15 seconds each of Arctic gush and volcanic piss dribble, alternating eternally to freeze and fry you until you give up and search for wet wipes instead.

The other week, I was walking down by the Thames and came across the National Covid Memorial Wall. It stretches on and on, the painted, chalky red hearts scattered on grey stone, into the distance ahead. It’s sad, and moving, to see the names and dates and declaration of love and longing Sharpied into the hearts – some fitting perfectly, others scrawled outside the lines, emotions running far too highly to worry about neatness or propriety. Grief gives you that licence, I suppose. The wall is beautiful, and its placing feels important. I felt myself wondering whether they could see it from the House of Parliament opposite, across the river. How defined would the hearts seem to the naked eye from over there? Could they still see the individual curves, the inscriptions even, or did it appear like a huge red smear of blood across  the stone to match that on their hands?  I said on Twitter, that instead of that awful Lego-constructed briefing room the government spent over two million pounds on, they should be made to stand in front of this wall and deliver their edicts and reassurances. Explain themselves right there, with red hearts all around standing in for pointing fingers. Memorials aren’t just tributes and an invitation to remember: they are warnings.

So while I may not consciously write about grief – especially my own, which is tired, overly played out and much serialised – I’m aware that it’s everywhere. The one good thing is that, usually, hope rides alongside. Time marches on, lockdowns end, traffic starts to fill the streets again, H&M duly reduces whatever outfit you just bought and wore to £3. Green shoots, everywhere. We don’t even have to be wholesome or positive about it – what’s the world without cutting snark? Grief is a renewable energy. As Kylie – and then Hazell Dean, in slightly remixed fashion – once sang, turn it into love. Red hearts on grey stone as far as the eye can see, remember. A mark of respect, an outpouring of love, a warning to hold power to account, and a reminder: to live. It’s the best gift you can give yourself, the highest tribute to those who’ve gone – an honour on your name and a medal on your chest.

Decode the lost language of the red hearts, the grey plinths, names on brass plates on park benches, the blue plaques, the freshly planted saplings, and the lonely abstract sculptures in parks. The most important thing is to survive, they’re saying. Onward.


The striking main image is The National Covid Memorial Wall in London, photographed by Garry Knight and taken from Flickr, used under Creative Commons, and presented in its original form, albeit resized.

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