My cousin Fallon died last week.
We weren't as thick as thieves but I come from a very close extended family and the news hit all of us like a brick. After I was informed of her death, I debated renting a car and driving the 3,400 kilometres so I could be with my family. My mom has a compromised immune system, and with coronavirus being the way it is now, I wouldn’t dare let myself be in her presence after getting on a plane. After realizing the drive from Toronto to Alberta didn’t make sense and wouldn’t change anything, I did the only thing I thought I could do.
I texted my cousin’s brother to say I loved him.
When you’re dealing with the death of a loved one, the pandemic feels like a pair of handcuffs you’re constantly straining against. I can text but I can’t put my arm on my grieving cousin’s shoulder like he did to me when our grandfather died 16 years ago. I can’t buy him a drink. I can’t try and make him laugh in the parking lot during Fallon’s wake. Even if I was back home in Alberta, those things would be off the table because social distancing measures don’t allow us any of the traditional ways we’d gather to grieve.
So here I am frozen. Stuck. Unable to grieve.
Mourning during this pandemic is something many of us are going to have to confront. Dr. Kristin Bianchi, a clinical psychologist with the Center for Anxiety & Behavioral Change, told me that the pandemic exacerbates the difficult moments people are experiencing.
“People are being deprived of physical contact with their social support systems,” said Bianchi. “With that also comes missing out on many of the rites and rituals that are so important to us as part of the mourning process.”
“We can expect that people are going to feel more lonely during the grieving process and that they'll be missing a certain degree of closure,” she added.
Simply put, grieving can become profoundly lonelier when compounded with social distancing. How this manifests is different for each person. Some may feel overwhelmed, others profoundly isolated, and some, like me, may experience a numbness punctuated with moments of profound pain—both the sadness of loss and helplessness of not being able to comfort my family—here and there.
My family is doing the best we can. My eldest aunt who was close to Fallon is hosting meditations for the family that, while normally not my cup of tea, I’m going to start participating in. We’re doing lengthy video calls to discuss the last few days of my cousin's life. My sisters, another cousin, and I are on Facebook Messenger sharing photos and stories and talking about how we’re dealing with this (read: too much drinking). This situation has led my technologically inept mother to learn how to Facetime so that’s a plus, I guess. Getting my aunt to join the call is still a work in progress.
On Tuesday, we discussed what kind of urn my cousin might have wanted. My little sister who moved to a B.C. ski town with Fallon 10 years ago is looking for some “classy urns” that will fit her personality. I have nothing but faith that she’ll find one that’s perfect.
Chris Jong, the vice-president of the Alberta Funeral Service Association, told me that if we were to hold a funeral for my cousin at one of the association’s facilities we would most likely have to limit the service to 15 people. Those in attendance would have to maintain 2 metres of distance from other people and be free of any COVID-19 symptoms.
“There is no doubt that these restrictions make an extremely significant and emotionally daunting time in people’s life more difficult,” said Jong. “Our hearts break for these families every day. We understand people’s need to mourn with their social supports in meaningful ways.”
These rules reflect the steps most funeral homes are taking to help slow the spread; in Newfoundland more than 120 cases of coronavirus were linked to one funeral home. Jong said many families are holding off on funerals until things are safer and that livestreaming the funeral and video and audio recordings “seem to be the preferred option currently."
Across the globe, the bereaved are turning to screens to say their final goodbyes. Some funeral homes are even livestreaming the cremations for the mourning.
In one of our family’s video calls, the idea of a livestreamed service was floated but I don’t think it would work for us. My mother’s side of the family's natural state of being is to be jam-packed in a hot kitchen cooking some cabbage rolls, perishke, perogies in a dill sauce rich enough to give you gout, or nalysnyky (please don’t ask why a Scottish family cooks Ukrainian cuisine) and downing wine, scotch, tequila, beer, or what have you—so keeping their distance is never going to fly.
Plus, many of us just don’t do technology all that well, which I’m sure is a universal truth among most families. I shudder to think about all the memorials and funerals that have been missed because Aunt Fran couldn’t figure out how to load Zoom in time or Uncle Barry accidentally logged himself out of his Gmail account and couldn't find the Hangouts invite.
Further to that, Bianche said that for many people out there, a service that takes place on a video screen just won’t feel real. In this time of social isolation, we’re already glued to multiple screens so it’s normal for things to feel surreal when we're living like this. Essentially, this means it takes longer for the loss to truly sink in because we’re experiencing information overload. Combined with the lack of physical contact and traditional rites we’re used to, it’s a recipe for a lack of closure.
“There's something very powerful in seeing your own grief mirrored by the people who love and care about you and who loved and cared about the person that you've lost and to not have that, is it certainly going to complicate an already lonely process for humans,” said Bianchi.
Bianchi recommends that people reach out to loved ones in times like this and said it's important to remember that just because grief counsellors aren't seeing anyone in person they're still doing calls and video sessions.
As of this moment my family has not made a decision of how to go forward. Whatever they choose I will support them and do my best to make it work but I wish—so fucking bad—that we could just have a normal funeral. I wish I could hug my mom as she cries or buy my cousin a drink and talk to him about the last Bouncing Souls show he went to in a vain attempt to distract him. I wish when I finally break down and cry about this it would be back home in Alberta, not in an apartment in Toronto.
I’m not good with grief at the best of times and I’ll take it day by day. There’s no good takeaway I can give you. Losing someone sucks and losing someone in a pandemic only serves to complicate those already messy feelings. There is no magic trick.
Fallon was young, smart, funny, beautiful, and a hell of a good time to have a drink with at Christmas and Easter. The world is a little less bright without her in it. She wasn’t taken by the coronavirus, but she’s gone, and there is no changing that.
I just wish I could say goodbye.
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