Love and Loss in the COVID-19 Era
By Zuzia Whelan
Like many, I’ve lost someone I loved during the COVID-19 pandemic. And even though I got to attend a service, I still felt they’d be back when the pandemic was over and when life went back to “normal.” The one constant of grief is that everyone experiences it differently. In more familiar times, we had rules and rituals to help us say goodbye. But now, amid a pandemic that has claimed almost 4.5 million lives globally, many of us are at a loss. For those unable to gather or comfort each other, it has been even more difficult to find closure.
Marking National Grief Awareness Day, today’s Daily Dose looks at how to grieve when we can’t congregate, the importance of closure and what we can learn from cultures around the world when it comes to saying goodbye.
LOSS AND GRIEVING IN A PANDEMIC
No Outlet for Pain
After three marriages, Mandy Nicholson, 56, from Northumberland, England, said never again. But then in 2013, she met Gary, who nine years earlier had undergone a double-lung transplant, and was “so different to anyone I have ever met,” she tells OZY. She decided to give marriage another shot. When Gary, who had cystic fibrosis, suddenly lost his short-term memory one night last summer, it took 13 hours to get a doctor to call her back and he was then taken to a hospital. “He was a high-risk patient with no immune system,” so COVID-19 was a real threat to him. The hospital’s COVID-19 visiting restrictions meant she missed the last month of his life. Then she got a call that she should come in to say goodbye. “We were allowed to have eight people at his funeral, and he had hundreds of friends.” They were hard choices. “I found it hard to comprehend that I should send him off in such an insignificant way,” she says. “It felt like I had been robbed of the goodbye and comfort that I needed.”
Sophia Husbands, 42 and based in London, met her best friend and future travel buddy on a plane to Germany some five years ago. She was heading off on a business trip, and her friend was returning from the U.S. “We both were sitting in the same aisle. I remember looking at her scarf and thinking, ‘What a chic woman she is,’” Husbands tells OZY. They clicked in that moment, she says. Her friend recently died unexpectedly in Germany. Travel restrictions, however, meant Husbands couldn’t attend the funeral. It was difficult for her to miss it, she says, but she made a conscious effort to reach out to other people who would be there. She sent a letter that was placed on the coffin and had a rose quartz ring designed with a butterfly to commemorate her friend. She wears it often: “So that way, she stays with me.”
The Long Goodbye
There has been a deluge of guides and articles written in the past year and a half on how to manage the lack of closure that can result from losing a loved one during the pandemic. Some researchers have even suggested that the circumstances around deaths during the pandemic might lead to a higher incidence of prolonged grief disorder globally. COVID-19 has caused “disruptions” in how we accept what we think of as a “good death,” Liv Nilsson Stutz, professor of bioarchaeology at Sweden’s Linnaeus University, tells OZY. “Many people had to die alone in the hospitals — isolated. This in itself became traumatic for the survivors.” These deaths are tragic and feel unnecessary. Mourners could no longer pay tribute and comfort each other, which can inhibit the process of moving on, Nilsson Stutz says.
Fear for the Future
“The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving,” David Kessler, an expert on loss, told the Harvard Business Review. Even though we know the pandemic is temporary, it doesn’t feel that way, because there’s still so much uncertainty ahead of us, he said. Yet there’s a lot of strength to be found in naming our experience as grief, so that we can feel it properly. Knowing and experiencing a fear like this, without being able to identify it, “breaks our sense of safety.” Kessler’s suggestion for coping? Focus on things that are within our control and take charge of the narrative in our heads, even if it feels forced — and don’t imagine the worst-case scenario.
THE MEANING OF MOURNING
COVID-19 has been responsible for the deaths of about 635,000 people in the U.S. alone. In March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged Americans to hold only small family memorial ceremonies and to livestream those services for others. Across the Atlantic in Italy, funerals were banned entirely for two months last year, up until early May. When we’re denied the very traditions specifically created to help us cope with the death of a loved one, it can be “very problematic,” Nilsson Stutz of Linneaus University says. “We often do not understand just how important and meaningful these rituals are until we are not able to perform them.” It can result in unresolved grief, a lack of closure and the feeling that we can no longer control the traditions around death, which can be frightening, she adds.
The Jazz Funeral Lives On
If tradition and ritual help us grieve, then nowhere is that felt more keenly than in New Orleans. With millions of Americans now vaccinated, traditional public gatherings marking someone’s passing have been allowed to take place once again. One of the most famous in the country, jazz funerals — a brass band and community procession to mourn and celebrate the dead — returned to New Orleans in May when “second line” parades were once again permitted. This parade’s roots lie in the musical funerals common in the American South during the 1800s, passed on from West African tradition, and they have been an integral part of Black culture in the Big Easy ever since. Typically, a jazz funeral procession begins at a church or home, and musicians join the walking mourners along the route to the cemetery playing slow, sorrowful dirges. On the way back, the mood changes to a celebration of life, and the streets are filled with music and dancing.
Not Over the Bridge Yet
For as long as residents in the Ringsend suburb of Dublin can remember, when a local dies, their coffin is carried over the Ringsend Bridge by pallbearers from the community — usually dock workers — who oftentimes will organize the remembrance to take the burden off the grieving family. The small bridge connects the area to the rest of the city, and the coffin is carried to St. Patrick’s church nearby. Traffic stops for about 10 minutes while this happens. “It puts you in touch with people, it gives you a heart,” pallbearer Eoin Dunne tells the Dublin Inquirer. “I think it’s comforting for some nearing their end to think of their family and friends carrying them on their way,” Ringsender Orla Murphy tells OZY. Fewer people have been allowed to take part in accompanying the coffin on its church-bound journey during the pandemic, but the tradition continued. “Everyone in the community wanted to keep this tradition going,” Murphy says.
GRIEVING, PAST AND FUTURE
The Town That Branden Built
With the number of funeral attendees restricted in many countries around the world, some video game fans have turned to their hobby to find a way to memorialize their loved ones. Branden Perez, a 23-year-old New Yorker who died from coronavirus complications in April 2020, was given a ceremony his friends and family thought was perfect for him. Due to strict local restrictions against meeting in person at the time, his family and friends provided him with a goodbye via Animal Crossing, the popular Nintendo game. In the game, players take the form of cute animals and play as avatars in a virtual world known for its peaceful, conflict-free society. Speaking to Fox News at the time, Perez’s cousin Pricilla said her big family was able to partake in the online “ceremony” in a town that Branden himself had built in the game. “It made us so happy to have that for Branden, it’s a place we can always go back to, to be with him.”
The Wall of Grief
In India, the dead won’t be forgotten. Established by The Reporters’ Collective, the Wall of Grief is an online project in India commemorating those who’ve succumbed to COVID-19. With India currently recording the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in the world, the aim of the project is to visualize the scale of the tragedy and provide a cathartic space to people adjusting to lives without their loved ones. The memorial consists of an interactive wall of names, which highlights the age, location, occupation and date of death of each person. The initiative also serves as a resource for journalists, researchers and activists.
Klara and the Son?
Spoiler alert: In Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Klara and the Sun, the author focuses on the idea of artificial intelligence and robotics as a way to recreate, and thus extend, the lives of loved ones, however inaccurately. The book raises some interesting real-world quandaries, such as: Is using voice, memory or physical attributes collected from those who have died to create a pseudo-version of them ethical? Writer and bot developer James Vlahos details how he could still have conversations — of a sort — with his father after he had died. Vlahos, who lives in California, created what he calls a “Dadbot” by recording extensive conversations with his father before he passed away, and creating a chatbot — software that communicates via text in lieu of a real person — based on his father’s voice and memories. Would you want a bot to speak to after a family member has passed?
But sometimes, technology can take commemorating someone too far. When a documentary about chef and writer Anthony Bourdain was released in July, viewers and fans of the beloved New Yorker had mixed feelings. Bourdain was admired for his direct yet insightful approach to food and travel and for his impressive use of swear words. But the spoken words in the film — some voiceover sections of Bourdain speaking, or reading — were not technically his own. Director Morgan Neville used voice-cloning software to lend Bourdain’s voice to the production, which caused many to question the ethics behind the move. Similarly, recently announced posthumous hologram tours by Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse have been met with controversy. To be sure, there’s a fine line between remembering our loved ones and overdoing it. And that’s why so many of us are yearning for the old ways of saying goodbye.
- Zuzia Whelan, OZY Author Contact Zuzia Whelan