Grieving in times of Covid

A year ago this week, we lost a dear family friend. Losing her would have been agonising at any time — but Covid made the whole process, both before her passing and after, so much more disconcerting. And for me, it came on the heels of another major loss just a few weeks earlier.  

Aunty Rosie had been ailing for several months before she died, with things accelerating in the first quarter of 2020. After our first local Coronavirus case in Trinidad, she was in an out of hospital. The public facilities had particularly strict visiting hours and visitor numbers. Even when she returned home, we knew so little about what was safe and what was not — how to protect ourselves and others (masking guidance was still inconsistent) — that there was no clear sense of what the “right” thing to do was as a loved one slipped away. Was it to take the chance and honour that relationship by saying goodbye in person? Or was it it to stay away?  

Even thinking back on it now, my stomach turns. Because in the end, I stayed away. And I’m left with an aching sense of regret that was only exacerbated by what followed.  

When she died in late May, funerals were restricted to five mourners. One niece and one nephew were joined by three of her dearest friends — my mother, my Godmother, and another aunty. Given the number of young people she’d shaped over nearly six decades of teaching, I cannot imagine the church would not have been packed under normal circumstances. But instead, there we all were, Zooming in on five solitary souls sitting a minimum of six feet apart from each other in an otherwise empty church.  

Watching the whole thing unfold virtually was disconcerting enough on its own until it came to the recessional. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that if only five people were there, that those five people would also have to bear the coffin out of the church. When I saw those five lonely souls — three of them septuagenarians — rise, slightly confused, and then begin to bear their friend down the aisle … It was something that shattered me. Something about it — the five of them bearing the unbearable — drove home how wrong all of this felt. So deeply, profoundly wrong.  

I had to be a panelist in a webinar just about an hour later. I still grimace thinking about it because I felt so disturbed after the funeral — so much like I couldn’t get my bearings — that I have no idea if anything I said made any sense. That did not help my mood that day at all.  

I spent the rest of the day trying to wrap my head around what grieving loved ones means in this time, and what it means to try to process grief without the human contact and rituals that make goodbyes easier to bear. If only just a little. I tried to understand my own frustration and sadness — my acute disorientation — at not being able to go and give a final hug or kiss in person … and at that haunting sight of five lonely souls, on a screen, bearing the coffin of someone they love down the aisle of an empty church.  

No hugs. No shoulder squeezes. No back rubs. No singing. No handing a hanky. No propping each other up. No breaking bread. No laughter. No “a burden shared is a burden halved”. It’s as if all those human rituals help ground us, help shepherd us through the grieving process … and when they’re removed or disembodied (digitised or digitalised), it can almost feel like you lose your way.  

I was trying to understand it better, and came across a piece in The Atlantic:

Memorials are rituals with people and food … They are gathering, and presence, and showing up … At the Zoom memorial, I felt like a bystander to grief; at our own home, with a neighbor, in person, I felt like a person in mourning … Will these Zoom memorials be anything more than empty containers for unshed tears? How many unshed tears will there be during this time, and where will they go?

Sarah Ruhl, The Atlantic

Where will they go, indeed? Where have they gone? A year later, I still don’t know. Because we still haven’t been able to gather — her friends, her family, her old students, her old choir mates —to honour and remember her. It still feels like something is missing, something is lodged somewhere that needs to be released.  

I honestly went into the first lockdown period more than a year ago thinking that I had enough “practice” — with so many family and friends living abroad, and being so introverted — to see me through without too much difficulty. But there is a big difference between “selectively social” and mandatory isolation. It’s never been clearer to me the irreplaceable value of in-person everything, from meetings and limes and performances … to funerals. Technology is an invaluable supporting player; it is no substitute.

May we never, ever again take for granted the importance of sharing with each other, live and in person. In joy and in sorrow. And may we never go through anything ever again that requires us to separate ourselves so unnaturally — and for so long.  

Rest in peace, Rosalind Wilson.  


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