Catherine Mayer and Anna Mayer Bird spoke to journalist Eleanor Mills last week about bereavement, a subject which has risen up employers’ agenda during the pandemic.
Bereavement has become an increasing issue for society and for employers as a result of Covid. So much so that Acas last week issued new advice to help employers handle staff bereavement at work and understand an employee’s legal right to time off.
An online event last week organised by Noon, a website which aims to change the narrative about women in midlife, tackled the subject that confronts many older workers.
The session was chaired by Noon’s founder Eleanor Mills and featured Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, and her mother Anna Mayer Bird, who have co-authored the book Good Grief: Embracing life at a time of death. The book came about after both Catherine and Anna’s husbands died just at the start of the Covid pandemic. Indeed, Andy Gill, Catherine’s partner, is thought to be one of the first UK victims of the pandemic.
As Catherine recounts, it was a very strange experience to be widowed and then immediately “thrust into a strange world of silence and isolation”, although she said lockdowns were a great leveller and took away the immediate pressure to go out into the world again as a widow.
The women’s only human contact was Catherine’s weekly visit to Anna under Covid care-giving rules. Catherine’s publisher tried to get her to write a book based on blogs she was writing to fend off constant inquiries about her husband, who was a well-known musician. Catherine showed her the letters her mother had been writing to her husband John in which she described the peculiar pandemic world that had unfolded since his death. “The world you know is dead,” she wrote simply.
Catherine’s publisher asked her to write a book around the letters. She says it is the most painful thing she has written, given it meant having to revisit all that both women had gone through, but she feels it is important because there was so much that needed to be said.
Anna describes the experience of being widowed and alone after not one period of being on her own since her teens. She says the process of writing was comforting because she felt John’s presence and knew he would be thrilled that she had written a book.
She also described having to deal with endless ‘sadmin’, the paperwork and red tape associated with death – the frustration of doing so during Covid when it was difficult to get hold of anyone and her lack of knowledge of financial issues as she had left them mostly to John. Catherine says some of the sadmin became a comedy to her. She would screen shot some of the grief bot answers to statements trying to explain that Andy had died [‘that doesn’t sound good’, said one grief bot]. She decribes the sadmin, made worse for her as Andy had died intestate and with his personal admin in a state of creative chaos, as “unnecessarily bad”. “It just goes on and on,” she said.
For Anna a sense of humour, having each other to talk to and supportive family and friends were all important as was the joy of reinvention and the ability to find new ‘tribes’. Eleanor Mills said that in all big transitions it is important to find new people who are going through the same thing.
Catherine stated that it is impossible to prepare to lose someone you love – even if, like her, you have lost more people than average by midlife – but she said turning your grief inwards “eats you alive”. For her, grief has become a wellspring of activism and has forced her to re-embrace life to make it better for other people.
The two women spoke of the difficulty of dealing with people who don’t know what to say and sometimes say the wrong thing, such as treating grief like the flu – as something that you will recover from. Catherine was asked, for instance, if she regretted not having children. However, both Anna and Catherine agreed that the worst thing is for people to say nothing or to ghost you because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing.
People did not in fact have to say anything, they said. They could offer practical help, such as sitting in on legal meetings or assisting with organising the funeral.
Catherine said that people may sometimes try to rush you through the stages of grief or be frightened to talk about the person who has died. She said she had felt the need to put some people at their ease because they felt uncomfortable around grief. That wasn’t so much a criticism of those people, she said, but of the culture of being uncomfortable about death and about the emotions associated with grief – something the book aims to address.
Catherine added that her and Anna’s book was a triple love story – their love for their partners and for each other. She spoke of the physical impact of grief – of sudden grey hair, hip operations, of an accident she had had because she had been worrying about her mum, had been clumsy and not paying attention…Of how she still wears many of Andy’s clothes while her mum has given away much of John’s while Anna spoke of hearing John in her mind all the time and how he had become a part of her.
Catherine ended by saying that people sometimes said she had been so unlucky to lose two people very close to her during a pandemic. She said she understood why they said that, but added: “We were very, very lucky as we had people who we really loved and spent many years with them, and they are still here.”