After his death from coronavirus at the end of last year, the family notice for John Whitfield described him as an “incurable prankster” and an “ebullient lover of life”.
The former head of modern languages at St. Cyres School was a talented linguist, who spoke French and Spanish fluently, taught Latin and Greek, and as his family say “improvised flamboyantly with Welsh”.
There should have been hundreds of people at the former Penarth teacher’s funeral – family, former pupils and colleagues, friends from his bowls club, members of the church he had attended his whole life.
Instead, even his eldest daughter couldn’t be there as travel restrictions meant she couldn’t travel from her home in Boston, America.
“It would never have occurred to me, throughout my lifetime, that I wouldn’t be at my own dad’s funeral, and that I would be watching via video-link from thousands of miles away as just my Mum, my two sisters and their families, and my aunt and uncle – not the hundreds of people who were part of Dad’s life – said goodbye to him,” says Esther. “It’s a really tragic time for families.”
John had been Head of Modern languages at St Cyres School, Penarth
John and his wife Sandra
Like many thousands of people across the UK, John’s devastated family in Wales and America will be observing the national day of reflection on Tuesday, March 23.
Backed by the charity Marie Curie, people are being asked to take part in a minute’s silence and a doorstep vigil to remember those who have died from the virus over the past year.
More than 146,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the UK since the start of the pandemic, according to the latest government data. On March 23, 2020, when the first lockdown started, that figure was 335.
A number of landmarks across Wales, like Cardiff Castle and the Menai Suspension Bridge, will be lit up in the colour yellow at night as part of the event.
John’s other daughters, Rachel and Lydia, like their mum, Sandra, will be heading down to the seafront in their hometown of Penarth to see the pier lit up for the event and to remember a much-loved husband, father and grandfather.
Esther and Lydia are former students of Atlantic College in the Vale of Glamorgan and the castle there will also be lit up on Tuesday evening.
John playing cricket on the beach with his grandchildren
John with his grandchildren
(Image: The Whitfield family)
Lydia says: “It still hasn’t sunk in that we have lost Dad. He was the most adored man in the world, and it was devastating to think that he had to go off to hospital on his own.”
Despite being extremely careful since the start of the pandemic, John tested positive for coronavirus just six days before he death in December.
He was rushed to the University Hospital of Wales where his condition initially improved, but then he had to be put on a ventilator and just days later his family were called in to say their last goodbyes.
Lydia says: “He was never very good with his mobile phone or technology, so it was really difficult keeping in touch.
“He was 78, but he was a fit as a fiddle and had no underlying health conditions. And he had been so, so careful – not going out, playing Scrabble with Mum and both of them practising their bowls in the garden throughout lockdown.
“Rach and her husband Iwan, who live a few minutes away from them, regularly brought their groceries for them and went up with their boys for socially-distanced picnics outside the flat.”
As Rachel says, “Dad was so careful to the point of paranoia, which makes it even more unfair. That and the fact that we were so close to the vaccine.
“When he improved at the start we had this huge surge of hope that he was going to get through this.
“But he never came home. Mum, Lydia and I were able to get in to see him to say our last goodbyes, and Esther was in America on Facetime with us. There was no reaction from him but he did look peaceful.”
Esther says: “The week before Dad went into hospital, I knew he was feeling a bit poorly, but I’ve still got his texts telling me that it was just a stomach bug and not to worry.
“It was a huge shock to find out that he actually had Covid, we are still all trying to get our heads around it.”
She says that in normal circumstances she would have been able to fly to Wales straight away but travel restrictions meant she couldn’t and no visitors were allowed into the hospital to see him.
John on holiday
Esther and Rachel were taking it in turns to speak to the doctors and nurses caring for their dad and they were able to get updates.
“We heard a few times through the five days that Dad was on a ventilator and that when he came home, he would be very weak,” says Esther. “We were prepared for that, and it seemed that would be the better time for me to go and see him. I didn’t get that opportunity, though; he took a turn for the worse overnight and on December the 19th, and we lost him.
“Not being with Mum, Rachel and Lydia after Dad had died has been the most challenging part of this experience for me. Rachel and Lydia have been looking after Mum really selflessly, so I know she has company and is well cared for.
“It’s more that this is a time when we should be together, and there are so few other imaginable circumstances where we wouldn’t be.”
On Tuesday 23 March there will be a minute’s silence at 12pm to remember everyone who has died during the pandemic.
People will then be encouraged to light candles from 8pm and leave them on their doorsteps.
Community-led activities, such as virtual choirs and services will also take place.
Marie Curie said: “Behind the statistics and whatever the cause, every death has been devastating for the people left behind.
“There are still tough times ahead, as the death toll continues to rise. This annual day will give us all time to pause and think about this unprecedented loss we’re facing, and support each other through grief in the years to come.”
The family are keen to back the national day of reflection and have been in touch with other families who have lost loved ones.
“Everyone has their own story,” says Lydia. “Dad had meticulously planned his funeral, but we weren’t able to do any of it. It was still a beautiful send off and we are planning a big celebration of his life when we are allowed to and remembering him and others who have died in the past year is important.
“We really want to be able to keep his memory alive. “