The coronavirus death toll in the UK has now reached over 50,000; a number 43 per cent higher than the expected number of deaths in a normal year. Since the first UK case was identified on 29 January – at a hotel in York – the country has seen thousands of families lose mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, and other relatives to the deadly virus.
In the next 365 days these families will have to face anniversaries, birthdays, and other milestones, without these people. As Father’s Day approaches on Sunday 21 June, The Independent spoke to three Brits who lost their dad to Covid-19 about how they’ll mark the day.
Shanaz Nagamah, 31, from Essex, lost her dad Mohamed, 82, on 7 April
“My last memory of dad is squeezing his hand as he got into the ambulance. My brother, Nizam, 35, had called me to say dad’s breathing was getting worse and he needed to go to A&E, so I rushed the 20-minute-drive to my parent’s house in Edmonton. I didn’t see him again before he died six days later.
Dad was such a fun-loving guy, so generous and so family-orientated. He worked for the Ministry of Defence, but was long-retired and enjoyed spending time in the garden – he loved his gardening – or doing DIY at home. Every Tuesday he would take my brother and my husband out for a steak dinner (his favourite food) at the local Wetherspoon’s pub. He also loved a Krispy Kreme doughnut, but would only eat the original plain ring with all the glaze scraped off.
My favourite memory of him is when he walked me down the aisle in 2018; it was just two months after he had open-heart surgery to replace a valve. But he recovered fully and was there on my wedding day. He was generally very fit and healthy for his age – people always said he looked younger than he was.
It was on 20 March when we first found out he was feeling unwell – he texted me to say: “I think I might have a touch of the virus” because he couldn’t taste anything and had a temperature. But the symptoms were mild and he seemed to be getting better. A week later it got worse. On Wednesday 1 April his breathing was so bad the paramedics came and took him away. We weren’t allowed to go with him, and then weren’t allowed to go to hospital to visit him. I rang the doctors, pleading on the phone. He died on 7 April.
We all blamed ourselves as we don’t know where he caught it, but the hardest part of it all was not being able to see him in the hospital. They did a Covid test the day he was taken in but then lost the results and had to do another one – they only confirmed he was Covid positive the day he died. My brother had tried to keep up the positivity – at one point occupational health called us to discuss dad coming home, I don’t know why they thought that was likely. We all sort of knew. I spoke to dad on the phone and he’d say: “Darling, I’m feeling better.” But as the shortness of breath got worse I didn’t want to call. It’s so hard when someone has been there for you your whole entire life, and the one moment you need to be there for them, you can’t.
It’s so hard when someone has been there for you your whole entire life, and the one moment you need to be there for them, you can’t…
Even after he died we had to wait a month to see his body. It was just unreal. I find I can’t listen to the news or hear anymore about the virus – how can I look at people queueing for shops when we couldn’t have a funeral just weeks ago?
We would always normally start Father’s Day going to church as a family, then having a meal (usually a steak restaurant) and exchanging presents. This year we’ll go to church online then visit his grave with my mum, Joy. I’ve ordered some balloons and even bought him a card, although he’s not here. I think writing to him is the only way I can cope with my grief. We’ll finish the day either with a BBQ or a roast dinner if the weather is bad. It’s my first Father’s Day without dad but also the first my husband has been a father; it will be bittersweet.”
Lucy Harris, 44 from Lewisham lost her dad Richard Steel, 75, on 18 April
“Dad was a graphic designer – I thought that was so cool as a child. I used to beg to visit his office during the school holidays, he had the best felt pens and a photocopier in the 1980’s when no one else had one. When he was younger he played in the national youth brass band, and we bonded over our love of music. We sang in a few choirs together too. He was so hard working, kind, loyal and gentle. He had time for people and would always stop to chat.
But he was a quiet man – living in a house with three loud women. He’d listen to us all and then come out with a little one-liner. I miss his wit. He was also the most encouraging person I have ever known. Of course my mum is too, but whatever I decided to do in life, my dad was my number one supporter. He would always tell me how proud he was and I know some dads aren’t like that. I feel so grateful to have had that positive male role model from the start.
He also loved being a grandad: my two daughters wailed the night they found out he’d died. They both talk about him constantly and made me print lots of photographs of him to put next to their beds. It looks a bit like a shrine to dad.
Dad had Parkinson’s for over a decade and dementia the last few years. My mum, Sue, had always been his main carer but we finally got him into a care home in January. He was there a maximum of three weeks before he had a fall and broke his hip. He was taken to hospital and that is where he stayed. Mum and I would make daily visits to see him but as the UK went into lockdown the hospital stopped allowing visitors. My last visit was 19 March.
Because of the Parkinson’s dad had no coordination, and double vision, so didn’t own a mobile phone. This made contacting him difficult when we couldn’t go and visit in person. At one point they moved him to another ward and didn’t tell us. We tried to send him letters inside the paper bag his medication went in (mum had to drop it off at the hospital pharmacy) but we relied on a doctor or nurse finding the envelope, which said: “Please read this to my dad”.
We were denied our last conversations with him, we are never going to get that back…
We thought the no visits would be a temporary thing but then mum got a call. The doctor said: “I’m ringing to update you on your husband’s condition regarding Covid-19”. We had no idea he had coronavirus at this point. He died on the Saturday night. Apparently it was all very peaceful but we’ll never know. There are so many unknowns about him dying.
The hardest part was that nobody was able to visit him in that last month; we don’t know if he was aware of what was happening. It was especially hard for my mum who looked after him 24/7. We were denied our last conversations with him, we are never going to get that back.
On Father’s Day we’d normally go out for dinner or cook a meal as a family but I liked doing things alone with him. We’d have father-daughter dates and go to an art gallery, to see comedy or watch music. One time we went to a wine tasting and both got quite tipsy. In recent years the plans were more dependent on his health but even if I could take him for lunch at the coffee shop near his house, that was our date.
This Father’s Day will be hard. I am going to feel sad but I don’t want to overshadow the day for my daughters, because they’re making plans for my husband. I’ve decided I’m going to do something on Saturday, just to mark the day for dad. Whether I do that alone or with my family I’m undecided – perhaps I’ll go to the grave or we will have his favourite meal, which was curry. Whatever we do I need to have a point where I remember him and have a beer in his honour.”
Chris Kirk, 69 from mid-Wales lost his dad Jacques Kirk, 98, on 6 April
“My best memories of dad aren’t necessarily the ones he is famous for: I think of my childhood growing up in the shadow of WW2 and dad always wanting to fix everything. He’d never just go out and buy a new washing machine, everything was to be repaired. In his older years he got into fixing clocks and we did that together. His father was the same, maybe clock fixing is in the genes? That is what I remember most about him – his engineering. He got me into that way of thinking.
Now I’m sitting here in rural Wales, in a house bought as a tumble-down shell, which we’ve renovated over 40 years. It’s completely off-grid, with solar panels, a wind system and water from a well. I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking that on if I hadn’t had him as my father.
Dad was born in Australia in 1922 to an English father and a French mother. They moved back to northern France when he was two and he was raised there until the start of the Second World War when he was sent to live with relatives in the UK. It was judged he would be safer here. He had a French technical qualification and started work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, where he met his soon-to-be wife, Mary, a Oxford mathematics graduate. They married in 1946 and had two children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
After the war dad was sent to Germany in an RAF-led unit to investigate their aeronautical research. He later worked at the Airbus HQ in France testing aeroplanes in wind tunnels. At one point he was also the Honorary Consul in Toulouse, a job which mainly involved dealing with drunken English football fans who’d been thrown off a plane or tried to streak in public.
He finally retired in 1985 and lived between France and England. Dad always regarded himself as very English, which was strange because if you heard him speak he had a very strong French accent. He never sounded English.
I’m so glad I did visit because that was the last time I ever saw him face to face…
He moved into a care home in when mum died, he felt it was time. But that was where he contracted Covid-19. The care home was hit quite early on. I went to visit him on 10 March and even at that time I had been unsure about whether it was sensible to go. But I’m so glad I did because that was the last time I ever saw him face to face.
Thankfully he was ill for a short period of time, maximum three days. I’m grateful that happened because I don’t think he suffered. I spoke to him the morning before he died and his voice was croaky but he was good-spirited. I take comfort in that. He had a good life, he had 98 years.
I would always try to see him on Father’s Day if I was around (I have two children of my own and grandchildren). We’d often go for a pub meal – he had a circle of pubs around St Alban’s that he liked to have lunch in. He was never really into sport, so we just ate and enjoyed the food.
I have been thinking about what I’ll do on Sunday – I’m stuck in the house on my own. I’m sure my kids will phone me up but I will be thinking a lot about dad.”