Alice with her mother and grandfather, around 2003ALICE BYRNE

There’s usually a formula for approaching death; the stages of grief are even prescribed. Whilst in normal times this doesn’t come close to the actual experience of losing someone - everyone grieves at their own pace and in their own way - I wonder if the lockdown has disrupted our ability to even begin to muddle through. My experience of losing my grandfather during lockdown has been confusing and complex, and has made me reflect on how truly crucial collectivity can be in the process of mourning. Funerals are sanctified as an important ritual; a way both to honour our loved ones and gain a sense of closure. What happens when this ‘normal’ process of grief is interrupted, when ceremony is cut short and when families are kept apart?

My grandma’s funeral was in July 2015. We sat in a cold church on a hot day, listening to the gentle words of a priest who attempted but ultimately came short of encapsulating a woman who both loved and scolded with an unmatchable strength. Later, most sat drinking in the pub garden at the reception, while inside some jostled over the buffet. Though in every gaggle of people you could not mistake an aching sadness, you also sensed the presence of something distinctly consolatory. You could hear my family’s trademark biting sarcasm being batted around between sisters while uncles re-told ancient stories of their childhood. I felt comfort in the repetition, hearing them again as if for the first time and relishing in our joined history.

Five years later, in the midst of nationwide lockdown, my granddad passed away. While I am certain a large number of people outside his family would have wanted to pay their respects in person, they could not. Limited to about fifteen family members in detached clumps around a grave, the emotional warmth that we wanted to share was stunted by awkward separation. I was lucky to have the presence of both my parents, yet could not take comfort in the rallying strength of my extended family; we could not sit together as we would have done, recollecting and reminiscing. There is an acute sense of emptiness when you are forced to grieve in solitude. 

Our government predicted a ‘best-case scenario’ of twenty thousand deaths, a grim benchmark which has sadly already passed. There will be a multitude of families, therefore, who are not permitted to congregate after their loss. The National Association of Funeral Directors has aptly recognised that ‘witnessing a funeral can’t be deferred and there is no opportunity to repeat it again in the future.’ Yet there is, at the same time, an important balance to be struck between ensuring that families have this critical part of the grieving process recognised, and preventing the risk of infection for both family members and funeral employees. The restrictions are therefore necessary. 

However, I have realised that grief is best shared. We seek company as a form of alleviation of our loss. What’s more, being around those who knew the person we are mourning can help to keep their memory alive. We want people around us even if we cannot be with the person we ultimately miss most. So what happens when we are confined to our homes, unable to access these intrinsic sources of comfort? I’ve certainly struggled. I fear the extent of the impact on long-term health and wellbeing for those who have lost a loved one and who cannot grieve in the traditional sense, together as a family.

We are fortunate, I guess, that my granddad died at home, with some of his loved ones surrounding him. For many, this will not be the case. It has been emphasised hundreds of times over that COVID-19 is a solitary disease. Everywhere people are dying alone in hospitals, with families waiting to hear by telephone the fate of their loved ones. The cold reality of this situation is our new normal and will be for some time. 

"Even virtually, the idiosyncratic ability of humans to come together after death is clear: physical distance does not have to mean emotional distance."

It is possible however that in this ‘new normal’ we can find new ways to grieve and connect. At my granddad’s funeral we took pictures and took home orders of service to share with those who couldn’t be there. Some people have live-streamed funerals and some have recorded messages for attendees to play aloud.  Even virtually, the idiosyncratic ability of humans to come together after death is clear: physical distance does not have to mean emotional distance.


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Mountain View

Read More: Family in Lockdown

A glimmer of hope exists in the fact that I know one day we will once again be able to congregate and grieve properly. I know, when that happens, I will find solace in the shared sense of loss and my family will begin to move forward together. For now, it is for us to stay at home, respect the safety of key workers and vulnerable members of our society, and grieve alone. 

It is important to note there are many resources available, which hopefully can provide support for those experiencing loss in lockdown. Here are just a few:

- The National Association of Funeral Directors: https://nafd.org.uk/funeral-advice/ 

- Cruse (Bereavement Care Charity): https://www.cruse.org.uk/get-help/coronavirus-dealing-bereavement-and-grief

- At A Loss: https://www.ataloss.org/Pages/FAQs/Category/coronavirus-pandemic

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