How has the pandemic affected the way that we grieve? Tara Gandhi shares her personal experience.
Lockdown feels like it was a lifetime ago. Watching Tiger King, making that whipped coffee and entertaining the idea of learning Tik Tok dances could not be further from the situation we’re in now. The passage of time throughout this pandemic has been weird for everyone - but having lost a family member, it feels even stranger. For nearly five months, every day was the same. But then one day, everything was the same, except I no longer had two grandfathers. Losing my grandpa is the first big loss I’ve faced and processing that during lockdown was, and still is, very challenging.
Coming back to Glasgow helped, in that I had new distractions and lived away from the grief and the memories. Instead, I was faced with returning to life as it was - in the same flat, with the same girls and the same three rotating dinners. It was easier to put my loss out of my mind, but it hits so much harder when I do allow myself to remember. The things that hurt the most are the everyday things. When I’m talking about seeing or talking to my grandparents and my friends ask for the now redundant clarification “is this your Irish or your Indian grandparents”. Realising I won’t get to read Caitlin Moran’s columns anymore, because he was the person who would cut them out and save them for me. Catching his smell on the cushion I took from his house. I imagine these are the things that will hurt for a long time, and probably would have regardless of the pandemic.
He lived in Wales, which only made things more complicated. As he got sicker, restrictions got tighter, and we became more wary of my mum having to explain herself as she crossed the border. She shared the care work with her brother, who she would see briefly as they swapped over every 24 hours, unable and unwilling to break distancing, as my aunty was shielding. Every official process that we went through to get some help from the NHS or palliative care nurses took double the time, with numbers reduced and far more restrictions in place. The care nurses who we eventually organised to come were constantly fretting about how no one could see them smile through their PPE, not wanting to come across any less warm than they were.
Other than my mum, my family saw him twice in the time he was really sick. The first time we all went separately, so as not to have a full car sparking questions. We sat with him while he dozed, and I had to excuse myself to join a Zoom office hour with the lecturer who is now my dissertation supervisor. I had some ideas for a topic I wanted to bounce off her and I ended up choosing the topic there and then, at my grandpa’s. Another downside to having to do everything via Zoom is the haunting reminder that as you write the largest piece of academic work you have ever attempted, you are also working on the subject of the last ever proper conversation you had with a loved one. Not once have I sat down to do dissertation work and not thought of my grandpa.
Obviously, there are huge restrictions on funerals. But I think the tiny, quiet goodbye we held was far more akin to what he would have wanted. At the time I believe restrictions limited funeral numbers to 10, so it was just us and my uncle’s family. This feels like an incredibly selfish viewpoint, because there are so many people who deserved to be there but could not. All of my grandpa’s surviving family live in Northern Ireland, many of whom haven’t seen him for several years. My dad’s side of the family all would have travelled to Wales too, as well as my aunty’s mum. My grandpa lived a quiet life, but that didn’t mean there was any limit on the number of people who loved him, and who should have been there to say goodbye.
After the funeral, we broke distancing and hugged my uncle for the first time in the three month long ordeal. As a very tactile person, the lack of physical touch since March has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic for me. Not being able to hug my friends goodbye after a picnic date is one thing, but to not spend this process comforting my family in the best way I know how has been challenging, and by the time it came to the funeral withholding hugs felt almost cruel. It was a risk we were willing to take, and luckily nothing came from it. In all the aftermath, in the clearing of his house, and dealing with his will, we have gone back to distancing, once again unable to provide that necessary form of comfort.
In some ways, I’m glad that the upheaval of the pandemic shaped this process. It made sure that my family were all together for the hardest parts of it, throughout his illness and the aftermath, able to support my mum and each other. Knowing that Christmas will be very different anyway is very reassuring when I think about experiencing my first Christmas without him, because the complete shakeup of our traditions will hopefully make it harder to constantly be aware of his absence. Lockdown also meant I was around to help with the clearing out of his house, a task that is constantly being put on pause as restrictions in Wales and Manchester change. A treasure trove of stuff, this process dredged up hundreds of old family photos, notebooks full of lists and holiday plans, and my particular favourite, a clipping of a photo of Grumpy Cat stuck inside a kitchen cabinet. These are the memories of this experience I want to hold on to. I wish I could have spent more time in Wales with him in his last few months; I wish I could have seen the whole family at the funeral, given him a wake. But the universe had other plans, so I have to hold on to the moments and memories I do have. Grief in 2020 is a challenge, and it is not a process I have finished.
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