‘How I’m dealing with grief and loss during the coronavirus pandemic’

Nadine sadly lost her grandmother during the current coronavirus health crisis. But how are you able to grieve the loss of a loved one when you’re not even able to attend their funeral? 

My gran passed away during the coronavirus crisis.

Not from COVID-19, thank goodness, just during the whole palaver that is an unprecedented global crisis. This is an important distinction to make upfront… it gives me some comfort knowing that after a traumatic life (more on that later), she died with dignity, on her own terms and in her own bed. Not scared and alone.

But because of the pandemic, we, her family have been forced to face our grief both scared and alone. You see, my family is scattered all over the world – I’m here in Australia, my sisters are in Belgium and France, and my parents are in South Africa. My gran died in Belgium.

Nonna, as we call her, turned 95 just two days before her passing. She had been ‘ageing’ and ailing for a few years before, so we had been preparing our response to her death for a while. It’s a somewhat morbid reality for a close family who live apart – as excited as you are to plan for family get-togethers such as weddings, births and the lot, you have to be just as prepared for the sadder life events.

But in all our ‘planning’, we could never have imagined this. So what does grief look like in COVID times?

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Cut off from closure

The most obvious disappointment was not being able to attend her funeral – one of the most important steps in the grieving process for many. Even my sister who lives in the same country, just 30 minutes away, was not allowed to attend. Only my mum’s two brothers, who live in Belgium, were there to bury their mother. What were we to do?

For my mum, the idea of one of her brothers ‘live-streaming’ the funeral for her was floated. My first response was: “Yuck! You cannot do that. It’s inappropriate.” But is it, really? In normal times she would’ve caught the next plane out. So in a world where technology could help her ‘be there’, is it still wrong? There are no rules for this kind of thing and you need to do what feels right for you. While I came round to the idea of it being okay for my mum, the rest of us would need to find another way to ‘mark the occasion’.

So at the exact time of the funeral in Belgium, my sisters and I (and our cousin, also in France) ‘came together’ on a group video call. We chatted about our childhoods and our Nonna’s very central role in them. We laughed, we sighed, we cried. It was very cathartic and, I found, a very fitting way to say goodbye. I think my Nonna would’ve approved.

Grieving alone

In normal times of grief, mourners are surrounded by support, but without being able to travel or have visitors, we’ve all had to grieve on our own.

In non-pandemic times, I would be planning flights, packing suitcases and sorting my work cover in response to the news. Then I’d be dropping my kids off at school and fielding questions about why my eyes were so red and feeling relief at sharing my news and telling as many people I could about how very much I’m going to miss her. This would be followed by warm and sincere hugs from friends and acquaintances, and as the news spread, more visits and calls from my wider circle, giving me even more opportunities to tell my gran’s life story.

But there were no plans to be made, certainly no hugs and it felt odd to call around telling people what had happened – on the one hand, you don’t want to be seen to be looking for sympathy, but on the other you don’t want that awkward conversation in six months when a friend asks about your family and you throw in: “Oh, my gran passed away six months ago.” You could always pen a tribute on social media to spread the news, but that too felt too soon. So, aside from my hubby, I was alone with no other outlet for my grief (hence, this article).

Without having travel plans to make or friends dropping by, life weirdly got back to normal very quickly. With no school and few options for my husband to take our young kids out for a long time to give me some space, I was very aware of showing sadness but not scaring them with grief. I also went back to work straight away – my team’s already stretched in these strange circumstances and I couldn’t put that pressure on them – and to be honest, what else would I have done? Work was a really welcome distraction.

In a roundabout way, it probably helped me recover sooner, but that just made me feel guilty for not falling about in a heap for days – she deserved that much. But knowing my feisty, loving granny, that’s probably how she wanted it to be.

A new way to grieve

But while I had to get used to the idea of grieving in my own little bubble, I was never really alone. My friends still found ways to be there for me. Opening my door and finding handmade cookies to sweeten my day or a pot of bright, yellow flowers on my doorstep was even more appreciated in times where everyone is finding it tough, but still care enough to make a plan.

Technology that allows me to be in touch with my family as often as I want means that even though we were all grieving in our own homes, in different countries and on different continents, we were still available for one another. And with the different time zones, when my mum felt sad in the middle of the night, I was awake to take her calls and keep her company.

Instead of jumping straight into planning to get to the funeral and building myself up into a state, thereby delaying the grieving process, I had the time and space to ‘feel’. That day, I took a walk, put on my Nonna’s favourite songs and let the memories and emotions flow. And instead of worrying about my family’s emotions and putting on a brave face for all the well-wishers who’d usually surround me, I was able to work through my own sadness.

It’s a very surreal way to live through a death in the family, but the spiritual side of me believes this is how she wanted it to be. No drama, no panic-buying flights or stressing on how the kids would deal while Mum was away – just a peaceful passing and calm acceptance.

And no-one deserved a peaceful passing more than my Nonna. A Holocaust survivor at the age of 21, a young widow in her 40s, and a cancer fighter in her late 70s, at the age of 95, coronavirus was another crisis we were petrified of her suffering through. I am so very sad that she is gone, but she didn’t need for me to be at her funeral to know that. I accept that now, so we’ve both found peace.

More essential coronavirus reading:

Read up on what the government lockdown means for you, understand why Aussie doctors are up arms, be aware of the ‘hidden symptom’ of COVID-19 carriers, prepare yourself for the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic, get your sweat on at home with these free online workouts before reviving your over-washed hands with this DIY balm, and then console yourself with these unexpected joys.