Coronavirus restrictions around funerals have made bereavement an even lonelier process for people around the world. Alicia Persaud reflects on losing a beloved family member in the worst of times.
Something happened during lockdown and I want to share it with you, because I couldn’t share it with the people I needed to.
On 21 March 2020 my dearest greatest Auntie Audrey, better known as “AA”, passed away aged 94.
Her longevity was a family joke. Perhaps that’s why it’s still so hard to believe she’s gone.
Joke’s on us.
Let me start by saying that Auntie Audrey was no ordinary great aunt – this lady was a mother (like detergent, non-biological), a grandmother, an auntie and a friend – and that was just to me.
The current lockdown restrictions have frozen time. My daily life follows the same routine, which wouldn’t have included seeing AA, so I think maybe, just maybe, she is secretly living her life at home too?
Good one AA. See you on the other side.
If I were to confront reality, just for a second, and accept that Auntie Audrey has passed away, then can we at least agree she definitely was not supposed to die at a time of Covid-19? I am livid. No-one should be dying right now. The irony of this situation is deeply painful.
AA had an abundance of patience, proven by her attempts to teach me how to bake. She never had an unkind word to say about anybody or anything, unless she was given a cup of weak tea – in which case run and hide.
To me, AA’s heart was pure solid gold. It is a heart unlike any other I have ever known and will ever know.
On 7 April 2020 at 3.30pm, her funeral took place.
I baked cupcakes for the occasion, even though I couldn’t get the ingredients for the recipe she loved – Delia’s delectable low-fat carrot cake. Instead I raided the cupboard and settled for a cake filled with stale flaked almonds packed out with chia seeds which made for a dry and rubbery imitation. AA would not have approved.
We drove into the crematorium and were greeted by men in high-vis jackets, sitting by a barrier and waving us through.
As 15.25 approached, my mum, my step-dad and I tentatively walked towards the crematorium entrance and found ourselves standing next to AA’s hearse. My mum arranged the service which was beautiful. Thoughtfully prepared words and songs, read aloud with tender loving care, paid tribute to the impact Great Auntie Audrey had on the lives of others.
I had the privilege of sitting in the front row, mid-centre, flanked either side by my mum and step-dad. Two of Auntie Audrey’s friends were in the third and fourth rows. That was it. The 5 of us.
Auntie Audrey always kept me company at awkward social gatherings, neither of us being particularly good at small talk. This would be the last time I could count on her attendance.
The life of the kindest, generous, most stoical family member read aloud to emptiness. My heart quivers and my stomach still vibrates while I write this.
My brother and sister – my right and left arms – stayed at home to protect the lives of their little ones as did my Auntie Maz, who was like a daughter to AA. I was devastated. They were even more devastated.
This is not how a funeral is supposed to be. This is not how a funeral should ever be. How could I mourn like this?
I needed to see people, I needed people to hold me, to feel like there were a lot of people around and that I was physically supported because I felt emotionally isolated. I needed to look into the eyes of friends and family and know that even though life will never be the same, it will be okay.
I’m not sure I was designed for video calls – I am awkward and clumsy and have never had much practise. No-one mentioned this virtual stage of the grieving process at school.
I always called Auntie Audrey in a panic on a Sunday night to ask where my freshly ironed school shirt was. I would spend my summer holidays at her house, though she lived a 20 minute walk away. On an especially cold night she’d warm up my bed with a hot water bottle in and I climbed in, all warm and cosy. That’s the feeling I’ve lost, the quiet unassuming certainty of the person that put the hot water bottle in my cold bed.
During the service I couldn’t look at the coffin. I refused to believe my Auntie Audrey was in there. Although, it did take 5 men to carry the coffin and she was a big-boned lady so perhaps she was after all? I wondered if she was wearing her token red lipstick – the only item of make-up I’ve ever seen her wear, reserved for restaurants and weddings.
Edelweiss played us all out of the room and we emerged into hot, sticky air. After a funeral one should attend a wake. One should mourn with others, share memories, cry on each other’s shoulders, wrap arms around strangers, eat pineapple and cheese on cocktail sticks and precariously clink glasses while sobbing copiously.
After AA’s funeral I was (kindly) dropped off at my flat clutching a bunch of funeral flowers wondering when I would see my parents again. I opened the door and sat on my bed in silence.
We will have another memorial for our dearest greatest Auntie Audrey when the restrictions are lifted.
So, for the time being, my grief has been put on hold. I will have to endure another funeral, I will have to relive the day that I dreaded with every fibre of my bones. The time when I can cry into my sisters arms while she cries into mine has been postponed indefinitely. I’m frozen, in grief-limbo knowing AA’s gone and pretending she hasn’t.
The most recent data from the ONS shows that there were approximately 150,000 deaths in England and Wales between March and May 2020. This figure includes deaths that were unrelated to Covid-19.
If only 100 people were directly affected by each of those deaths then 1.5M of us will have been touched by grief during the lockdown and even more of us will know of a friend or loved one that has been affected.Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said “our grieving is as individual as our lives”
Although there is no single way to grieve, for those of us that have lost a loved one during Covid 19, we are all united in grieving alone, whether it is our chosen coping mechanism or not.
Of all the material I have read that discusses grief, not one handy hint has advocated isolating yourself completely. That would be absurd… Grief in isolation is the breeding ground for a mind monster.
Just as people are wearing face masks and gloves to venture to the shops we must take the necessary steps to wrap our imaginary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) around our hearts and minds to look after our mental health as we grieve.
Emotional connection is the psychological equivalent of PPE. To soothe our troubled minds, this is where our attention should be focused.
Whether you’re experiencing grief or another difficult emotion, know that there are other people out there experiencing similar pain. It connects me and you, no matter where we come from, where we are or what we’re doing.
We can’t physically connect but we can still connect. I’m not very good at talking about my feelings – hence I’m writing this article and reaching out to you.
Now is the time for me to become a good mourner, to continue to process my grief by expressing my feelings and connecting with myself and others, so that when this period of social distancing comes to an end – which it will – I will be there, on the other side, to receive and give hugs.
There are people in this world – some of whom we know but some of whom we don’t – that care about us deeply and are thinking of us right now. I care about you and we will get through this together with our virtual arms wide open ready for real hugs at some point.
There are many other ways to connect with others. Below are some helpful links to explore – it can be hard to think straight when emotions are overwhelming.
For more information on current funeral restrictions see Age UK’s helpful website – https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/coronavirus/arranging-a-funeral–coronavirus-advice/
Ways to connect:
- Books on grief.
- Connect with nature, birds, trees and sounds.
- Online bereavement support groups and counselling – Cruse and Grief in Common are specifically for people affected by bereavement https://www.cruse.org.uk/ and https://www.griefincommon.com/.
- I found speaking to friends and family without the video function was easier for me.
- Mind has a lot of helpful information about Bereavement and support services.
- Films and music may also help to process memories and feelings of grief. I’m listening to Edelweiss.
- Free audio guides from the NHS are available here as are a number of mental health apps.
- If you need to talk and you’re not sure where to turn you can call the Samaritans free on 116 123 – https://www.samaritans.org/
Words: Alicia Persaud