Getting near the exit gate: Richard Holloway on facing up to death and the need to grieve
Coronavirus has forced us to face up to death on a daily basis. It’s not something we like to think about, but Richard Holloway has spent more time considering it than most.
The 86-year-old former bishop of Edinburgh’s last book, Waiting for the Last Bus, examined death in general as well as aging and his own mortality.
Although Holloway lived through WWII and can remember the Clydebank Blitz, he believes that lockdown has “constrained our sorrow in a way that a war didn’t”.
“There’s something about this lockdown experience that constrains not only our freedom, it’s put a terrible restraint on our emotions,” he says.
“I mean, not to be able to get to the funeral, not to be able to sit and hold the hand of a dying mother or father.
“That, to me, is then a profound shock to the human system, because we are animals who need to grieve. All animals need to grieve, but we have a particular need of it.
“And I guess we’ve managed that as well as we could, but that, I think, to me has been the most moral and emotional challenge for this experience.
“I mean you can get by being frustrated at shopping, you can get by even enduring an illness at home if you couldn’t get to the doctor, as long as it wasn’t too serious, but to frustrate the profundity of mourning, that’s a profound shock that I think will take quite a bit of time for us somehow to assimilate.”
This inability to mourn normally will add to the trauma of loss, he believes.
“I mean a death, there’s always a shock to the system. You always feel you could have done more. This is going to add to that, you know, I couldn’t be there for [him], I couldn’t hold his hand.
“And, in a sense, we did all our mourning and our deathbed reconciling through the proxies of these wonderful healthcare workers who did it for us, who sat by the beds and held hands and then phoned families and said, ‘We were there beside him.’ I mean, that’s profoundly unnatural. But it’s what we’ve had to deal with.”
In his book, Holloway talks about developing fortitude to learn to live with sadness and loss, because there is no escape from it, and that is particularly real now.
“Ultimately life is tragic. We all lose it,” he says. “We all go, very often at a time not of our choosing.
“I’ve reached the stage when if I went tomorrow, it would be entirely appropriate. But even so, I’ve still got enough energy and love of life and joy in what I’m doing that I’d greet it with acceptance but with a kind of sadness. You know, I’d say, ‘Well, I’m no ready to go, but okay, if the guy’s at the door, I’ll open it.’
“But I think that the profundity of the dislocation of normal generational patterns is something that will take a while to sort.
“And the fact that the whole BAME thing that we’re going through at the moment, the fact that it’s hit most radically a lot of populations that we have in some ways not dealt justly towards anyway, is going to add not only to the grief, but to a kind of collective guilt.”
That situation might be a good cleansing, he suggests, because it may make us more aware of what we’ve taken for granted, if we can keep “that love and respect and awareness”, but he fears we’ll probably slip back the way we always do.
“Guilt can be useful. It also can be useless unless we actually learn from it, simply to wallow in it, but if this gives us a kind of jolt of reality, [it would be helpful].”
Asked whether he is optimistic or pessimistic about good coming out of this crisis, Holloway says he is a realist about human nature, both the depths of what we are capable of and the “immense goodness and heroic sacrifice”.
Referring to pictures of a black man in London carrying a white racist on his shoulders out of the crowd to save him being beaten up further, he notes, “We’re capable of that as well as the beating up itself.”
“I think that we are complicated creatures and our lives are always in crisis because of who we are. But I think that every crisis is an opportunity and I think that good will come out of this.
“We will revert, as we always do. We’ll fall back into our usual indifference and bad habits. But I think this has probably been a big jolt to the system. It’s clearly making us rethink a lot of things that we did take for granted.”
He notes that it took the Second World War to get us a national health service and hopes the shock of coronavirus will have a similar impact on unjust social structures in Scotland.
“I mean, the guys came back from years of slaughter and decided we have to do this better and out of that came the welfare state.
“So, this is a big crisis and opportunity like that, that could produce great social reforms if enough energy goes into producing it. It could be almost like that. It could create new, more moral, more helpful, kindly structures.”
If all of this sounds a little depressing, Holloway says he gets comfort and consolation from his family, poetry, reading about other crises (he has been looking at WWI recently), his own “eccentric way of doing religion” and gratitude for the “astonishing experience of being alive”.
He has not been idle while waiting for the last bus, spending lockdown making final edits to his next book, Stories We Tell Ourselves, which comes out in mid-July, and recording it as an audiobook. He’ll also come out of lockdown fitter than he went in, he says.
But he’s sanguine about facing up to the end of life.
“I’m getting near the exit gate. I’m grateful for having had life. And rather than clinging to it selfishly, I hope that I’ll die gratefully … If you get to a wonderful performance of any sort, as you walk out the theatre, you should be grateful.
“And as we walk out this particular theatre of life, we should say, my God, that was wonderful. Sorry it’s over, but it was great while it lasted.”