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How to deal with death?- Celebrating a life

Dr. Joanne Paul- MBBS (UWI), FRCPCH (UK), FRCP (Edin)

So, my stepfather died September last year, in the middle of the pandemic and the restrictions. The loss was much more for my mother, his biological daughter, and his siblings. I think him and my mother were together for over 40 years.

 

Although his death and the funeral were all very sad, what was also poignantly sadder was the lack of the normal death and funeral rituals that help us to grieve. The various nights of wakes, family members coming down from abroad, the eulogies, the stories, and snippets of the expanse of the person’s life. Each memory, each story, each pane of the kaleidoscope, almost like movie highlights, giving you a flavour, making one really see almost the whole person and the whole life within the flow of time. What is usually most fresh in the loved one’s minds is the last few years and thus their memories are coloured with the most recent past and the person they most recently were. That death ritual process brings back glimpses of childhood with the siblings, of the young person with early friends, the grown man at the workplace with the work colleagues, the grown man having adventures, the romance of the initial courting, the father, the grandfather, the great grandfather, the talker oh the talker, the retirement and the unpreparedness of such, the sage of the later years, the old man, the limitations of old age.

 

With the restrictions came the sterile, stilted, online wakes, the cremation, the 10 persons at the funeral with the many others watching on, wishing they were there to be part of it all as they had been there during the person’s life. And suddenly it would be all over, just some ashes, some pictures, and the inadequate pieces of movie reels of memories.

 

It would have been more complicated for the persons whose relatives died from covid. First of all, it was the general fear of covid with all its uncertainty. It made us more aware of our mortality and left us feeling extra vulnerable. Then the dread of the relative being positive for covid. Then the deterioration and the relative being admitted with the isolation of hospitalisation, and then the unexpected death. Then the arrangements to get the bodies to the specific funeral agencies, the delays in the processes, the subsequent quarantine of living family members, the delay of the funeral for family members to be off quarantine or the virtual funeral whilst on quarantine. Add to that the lack of spiritual or religious rituals, lack of burial practices, extra grief of other members of the family having covid and/or hospitalisation or even another death.

 

And then the numbers depersonalisation of it all. The last time you may have seen that relative alive was just before they entered the hospital system which would have been days or weeks. That would have been the last time you saw or touched them. No real chance to say goodbye. And then they become a number. When you hear the nightly news figures, you wonder which of the numbers who died was your relative.

 

 

Now that we have a respite in the pandemic, it may be time to properly mourn and properly remember the persons we have lost over the past 2 years whether from covid or non-covid. It may be time to let go of the angst of not being there with them in the last days, the denial that this actually happened so suddenly without fanfare, the guilt at thinking you did not do everything possible to prevent the death, the anger at the pandemic and the public health restrictions that were mandated and out of your control, the gnawing emptiness and sadness of the loss of their very presence. It is time to signpost that loved one. Put a marker in the abstract sand. Have a mini memorial of some sort. Have a redo of that death ritual. Have family members share stories and pictures via email, phone, video chat, WhatsApp, social media. Coordinate a session of spiritual readings, poems, prayers or just some ole talk. Have a small lime within the restrictions. Have a session at your church, temple, mosque. Take part in an activity that had some significance to you and that loved one.

 

But mainly try to see them. Like the whole of them. Reverse the depersonalisation and make it personal. Get the stories and pictures from each stage of their lives. Accumulate the glimpses, the moments, the times of brilliance, the times of stupidness. Remember their touch, their smell, their smile, their laughter.

 

During the puny 1-hour ceremony at the cremation for my stepfather, one of his best friends talked about their wild meat days in Matelot and along the north coast road. It was like a trigger. It brought back the movie reels of the other aspects of his life, and I was like ‘oh yeah’ And finally I started to see him in flashback moments in his lifespan

 

To all the persons who have had deaths over this pandemic time, my deepest condolences. Time to remember them. Time to say, ‘oh yeah, remember that’ And cry. And accept. And then smile. And then say goodbye.

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