A year ago I set up my company Iona Consultancy (I’m proud of the pun). A year on here’s a bit about what I’ve been up to, an acquaintance called Rob and the sense I’ve made of this lonely, loss-filled, love-fuelled year.
O n a bright, cool autumn day in early November, I met 80-something-year-old Rob on a beach in Galloway in south west Scotland. We sat on a bench overlooking the sea and got chatting about his bouncy dog, Ailsa, who he walked along this same beach everyday to ‘keep him young’. He told me about his grown children now spread across the country from Doncaster to Perth, and his wife Mary, who moved into a local care home a couple of years ago as dementia took hold of her.
Rob’s mobile rang and I took the opportunity to dive into my cheese sandwich. ‘Oh’ I hear Rob say. ‘Oh no’. I stopped munching. He put the phone down and I looked at him, turned from jovial stranger to intimate witness. ‘Mary’s got Covid’, he said.
I fought my British instinct to ‘leave him to it’ and offered to walk with him back to his car. As we headed to the car park, moving slowly as Rob negotiated the muddy ground with his two sticks, he told me how he and Mary first met at church in their 20s.
Watching dementia take her from him in recent years had been hard, and Covid-19 meant he had seen her just twice since March through the window of her care home. I bit on my tongue as I welled up. We got to his car and I lamely drew a Caramel Wafer from my pocket and offered it to him. He declined, but I found myself tearing it open and writing my number on the wrapper, saying he should call me anytime if he needed or wanted anything. He took it and said he wouldn’t want to bother me, ‘but thank you anyway’.
Watching him drive away and eating my naked wafer, I sat with a knot in the pit of my stomach and some feelings that have become so familiar this year.
I felt a foreshadowing of loss and its accomplice grief on hearing the news of Rob’s Mary. In the words of Meghan Markle in the New York Times: the sheer weight of loss at the hands of the pandemic, racial violence, inequality and climate breakdown, this year has brought many of us to our breaking points. Loss and pain have plagued every one of us in 2020, in moments both fraught and debilitating.
Our ability to ‘grieve well’ has a crucial collective element, something that Casper, Ivor and Alex’s report This Too Shall Pass shone a light on. When we gather together we grapple with our loss and move towards a future without our loved one. Something that 10 million mourners were unable to do after their loved ones died during the first lockdown.
In the shadow of the ever-growing loss of life, 2020 has robbed people of their hopes, dreams, connections, livelihoods and much more. The ‘Stewarding Loss’ work I’m growing with Cassie Robinson encompasses one element of this year’s losses. With 1 in 10 charities anticipating closure, our work to support better organisational endings is a humbling and often daunting piece of work to be part of. I’ve learned lots from Cassie and over 100 people we’ve collaborated with so far about the value of having courage to go above our shame and fear around endings and move towards the acknowledgement that endings are an inevitable part of change and renewal in a healthy civil society.
And then there’s loneliness. Rob hadn’t seen his children in months, perhaps the very people who could have supported him, and he them, as they processed the news about their wife and mother.
Long before Covid-19 arrived, loneliness was fast becoming a leading crisis of the 21st century. We have long understood the crippling effects of loneliness: as bad for our health as 15 cigarettes a day, it robs us of perspective, leaving us cut out and cut off, less tolerant, less compassionate, and less embracing of the wider world.
Covid-19 has been an exaggerator, amplifier and un-equaliser. Research by the British Red Cross last month showed that 39% of adults haven’t had a meaningful conversation in two weeks, and 1 in 3 worry something will happen to them and no one will notice. Amongst many excellent insights, Dr Daisy Fancourt’s Covid Social Study has highlighted the disproportionate impact of loneliness on young people, women and BAME communities who have all been hit hardest by loneliness, anxiety, depression and other mental health effects from enforced isolation.
In a world reshaped by globalisation, automation, austerity and most recently by the pandemic and economic downturn, loneliness also encompasses feeling excluded from society’s gains, and feeling unsupported, powerless, invisible and voiceless. The thread linking marginalisation, loneliness and polarisation were valuably highlighted by Noreena Hurtz’s new book. This is a theme I’ve explored through a year-long strategic and operational planning project I’ve been lucky to do with Andy Fearn, Kate Ferguson and their team and board at Protection Approaches whose work to build relationships as part of their identity-based violence framing in communities is simple, essential and hopeful.
As we enter 2021, with its expected crippling economic recession and ongoing lockdowns and distancing measures, the anticipation that loneliness will continue to distort our views of ourselves and each other with devastating consequences weighs heavily on my mind.
So whilst it has felt at times like 2020 has been hell bent on pulling us apart, in other ways it’s pushed us towards one another: from the record breaking sign ups for the NHS volunteer scheme, to the 8 million of us who stepped in to offer one another a helping hand to the moments of fleeting connection like Rob and I had. As Hilary Cottam wrote: this year we’ve seen a mushrooming of relationships which are ‘not about fixing each other, but about taking care and forging bonds of connection’. And these bonds are love in action.
To borrow Sophia Parker’s words: My hunch is that love as I describe it here — ie. an action, rather than a feeling — is a tool to build a much larger movement of people united by a shared desire to build connections, strengthen relationships and push back against injustice and inequality. Something that Marcus Rashford has shown us all how to do this year.
Marcus Rashford sees power in team work, in people coming together. His efforts this year haven’t been about charity; they’ve been about creating space for relationships and understanding between people from which solidarity, action and justice emerge. That two in three of us now believe that we can make a real difference in our community (a 16% increase from pre-pandemic levels) is a stat that has Marcus’ imprint on it.
And there are early signs that this renewed recognition of the value and power of our relationships with one another will have a lasting impact. More in Common’s recent report revealed 7 in 10 Brits believe that it is important that we stick together for the sake of all our future’s despite our different views.
Creating the conditions for stronger relationships has been threaded through all my work this year. This has included working with the amazing Choice Care Group exploring ways they can boost social connection and community using digital connectivity for the people in their care with complex learning disabilities and mental health conditions. Witnessing their work is nothing short of humbling. From bingo halls on video conference across different Choice services to a Christmas party complete with Santa beaming out to their hundreds of homes — there is much hope to be found in the work of their indomitable staff who have witnessed the devastating toll of this year’s losses and loneliness and pushed on with love nonetheless.
Choice’s teams are some of the millions of people building stronger relationships in communities, public spaces, services and on high streets as a way to a hopeful future. I was pleased to play a part in the Jo Cox Foundation’s convening of the Connection Coalition. Comprising 800 organisations from community hubs to local businesses to befriending networks and beyond — this hopeful coalition is a vibrant testament to the healing power of strong relationships and greater connection. Alongside this I’ve enjoyed working with Spirit of 2012 as they prepare to mark 10 years since London 2012 when they will build on the legacy of the Olympics and Paralympics to strengthen communities, connection and wellbeing.
I was grateful and excited to secure a Paul Hamlyn Ideas and Pioneers grant to explore how relationships is, or could be, a field of its own. Along with David and Immy at the Relationships Project, we’ve interviewed over 70 people who widely shared with us their belief that this year has been a turning point for a widening recognition that better relationships are central to a better society. As David wrote recently ‘there are the seeds of a just and inclusive renewal in the emerging legacy and it is the right time to think about assets and abundance, not because 2020 hasn’t revealed enormous deficits, but because it has’. The conditions for relationships to flourish must be prioritised if we are to build back better. I am looking forward to continuing this work in 2021 with a focus on exploring the possibility of a stronger field of actors in different spaces and at different scales, working together, finding areas of consensus and shared action and pushing for a more relationship-centred society together.
Rob, Mary and hope
I chanced upon Rob 6 weeks after our first meeting as I pulled into a beach car park. I wound down my window to hear him say ‘she’s better’. ‘The home called me today and asked if I’d like for her to have the vaccine for goodness’ sake. What a rollercoaster’.
I was moved by Julia Samuel’s words during the Good Grief Festival event a few weeks ago: ‘hope is the alchemy that can turn things around’. As Adrienne Maree Brown says, “It is healing behaviour, to look at something so broken and see the possibility and wholeness in it.” These are the words I am holding as we head into 2021 with the intention of deepening my ability to acknowledge the devastating cost of loneliness and loss whilst pushing forward with a commitment to stronger relationships, fuelled by love.
Iona is a consultant working with organisations with purpose. To learn more about her work on loneliness, loss and relationships, take a look at her website here.