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The Last Sympathy Card in Tesco

Long-time Associate Nina Jackson sums up the mood of the nation and beyond after an emotional trip to her local Tesco one Saturday evening in search of a sympathy card.

I went to Tesco on Saturday evening. I have never been a lover of supermarkets and, even before the Coronavirus, I rarely venture into such a place. Too many people, too many aisles and shelves full of non-essential items that baffle me as to why they are there. Too many tins, jars, gifts, cards, magazines and toiletry products galore. I just get a headache looking at the enormity of it all. Not to mention (and these are my ‘particulars’ in action here) how everything is often positioned in haphazard ways across the store, especially on a Saturday evening.

I had to decided that a visit at that time was going to be the best plan, so that I did not have to come into contact with so many people, queuing outside like in the photographs and videos we have seen online would all have been just too much.

However, this was a much-needed essential shop as we were running low on food but, more importantly, I needed to get a special card.

I’m sure like me, many of you have one of those bags or drawers or boxes, you know the one, where you squirrel away a variety of cards for different occasions – special days, special events, happy events and, of course, sad ones.

This was the one I was missing.

So, it’s Saturday evening last weekend, I’m in Tesco and I need to buy a sympathy card for a good friend who had sadly lost his mother about six weeks ago, before we were on ‘lock down’. You may think that six weeks is an unusual length of time before somebody is buried, and yes, it is.

But these are unusual times.

Armed with the smallest trolley I could find and relieved that the supermarket was almost empty, I found myself in the card aisle. Hundreds of cards everywhere. All human life is, indeed, here. From births and birthdays to marriages and anniversaries, thank yous, good lucks, sorry you’re leavings and welcome homes. You could compose a biographical novel out of cards. But this story had an unhappy ending and I needed a sympathy card.

But there were none.

I searched high and low and then noticed that there was a section labelled ‘Occasions’. It had two empty shelves at the top that I was drawn to, more through curiosity than anything. And there, hidden behind a thank you card that had particularly caught my eye, was a single and very lonely sympathy card.

In my innocence, I was confused why there were no more on display and, spotting one of the store workers at the end of the aisle, and keeping a safe two metres or more (to be extra safe) distance, I asked where the rest of the sympathy cards were?

‘They are normally on those top two shelves, over by there,’ a young man in a facemask and plastic gloves told me, ‘but we can’t keep them in stock. We have a delivery of between 150 to 200 sympathy cards a day, and by teatime they’re normally all gone. I’m sorry I can’t help you.’

All I could see of this young man was his eyes. And the sadness in them.

I held the last sympathy card in Tesco as if I were holding the most precious item in the whole world. I could not move. Time stood still and I felt as if someone had put the world around me on ‘Pause’. And then ‘Mute’.

I was frozen in a moment of reflection, sadness and the dawning reality that sympathy cards were now one of the most precious and in-demand commodities we had. All the more so because of the funerals of wonderful people we could now not attend.

So, what happens when there are no cards left?

I had a tear in my eye. I became overwhelmed at the most surreal, yet very real thought that death, dying, loss, grief and bereavement were everywhere. Demand outpacing supply. Grief is now knocking on doors in every town and village across the land. I had seen it on the news and on social media, of course, but it hadn’t quite hit me like this.

Holding the sympathy card in Tesco really affected me.

That same evening, I read about a seven-year-old old boy whose father was in hospital with virus. A few days before he had lost his grandmother. Shortly after that, he had lost mother. And the young girl from a school close to where I used to teach who had lost both her mother and father to the coronavirus in the last few days.

My visit to Tesco was last Saturday and now I have nothing but questions. Questions that you and I may or may not have answers to, but if we ask them loudly enough, maybe there will be people who can help.

  1. How will we support children, teachers and parents who have lost loved ones when we return to school as we know it?
  2. Is there a right way and wrong way to do this?
  3. Are there right or wrong words we should use?
  4. Will getting back to studies and lessons take over from grief, loss and bereavement?
  5. Will schools talk about loss – or try and move on?
  6. Will children ask questions about why some of the usual mummies and daddies are not at the school gate?
  7. Will children ask each other about death, dying and being alone?
  8. Will we humans make more time to talk to each other about death now, and about living and dying and how we may be scared, or how faith may help some more than others?

I have so many questions.

One thing I do know, is that the book Independent Thinking on Loss, written by Independent Thinking founder Ian Gilbert and his three children after the death of their mum, is one I will keep referring to for guidance, hope and connection, hearing through their voices how ‘Loss’ can also give us hope if we have each other, if we talk to each other, if we don’t ignore those words…you know…dying, death, dead and ‘sorry for your loss’.

No doubt many of us will need to be buying sympathy cards at the moment, as the death toll rises and with that, I’m sure the supermarket shelves will fill and empty again just as quickly. Maybe you will be there at the right time. Maybe you will leave empty handed. Then what?

Or maybe you will stand there clutching the last sympathy card in Tesco. [ITL]

Royalties from Independent Thinking on Loss are going to support the work of leading UK's children's bereavement charity Winston's Wish, who can help with at least some of the answers to Nina's questions. 

About the author

Nina Jackson

Nina Jackson

Nina is a teacher, writer and speaker very much in demand for her work in teaching and learning, SEND, creativity, learning technologies and, increasingly, well-being and emotional health for children and their teachers. She is the author of Of Teaching, Learning and Sherbet Lemons.

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