We woke on the morning of May 7 to the news that Dad had passed away. He had died at 11:30 the day before the start of a mini birthday season in our family—my sister Judi’s on the 10th and mine on the 11th. These days had long been the focus of “Family Time.” wherever we were in the world and whatever our ages. My sister and I were part of a happy four that became a happy ten, when we married and had our kids. And, with my marriage, the season now included my husband Michael’s birthday on May 7. Dad the quiet head of our family, was always there in the background with mum planning the parties.
Now, here in our home in Ireland, far from his hospital bed in Scotland. Remote. Not able to hold his hand. Certain he knew we loved him and he us. He was gone. Trying to navigate this strange reality of grief through FaceTime I heard Judi’s voice, “Dad’s gone, Fiona.” I heard their tears and my own. Not able to see their faces. Not able to be with them. Shared grief held us close as we mourned together across the Irish sea. Should any family go through what we went through? Of course not…but it’s our new reality and it will be for months to come.
How many families have experienced this remote world of intimate but fractured loss? Like so many unable to be with loved ones hospitalized and imperiled by the virus, we had already gone through weeks of distance-deepened worry.
My sister had phoned on a Sunday, 11 days before. She was distraught. “The hospital has phoned Mum. She has to go in. Dad has taken a turn for the worse.” She continued, “I thought he would make it. He was doing so well. I had stopped worrying. I shouldn’t have.” Voices were fractured with emotion as we considered what to do. We agreed, our mum cannot be on her own. Judi needs to be there. The guidelines don’t allow me to travel. I will have to manage my worry from a distance while Judi and her husband could drive north to Scotland.
Dad is in the isolation ward, covered in PPE. (Who even knew what PPE was until the pandemic struck?) Mum, in the same protective equipment, is allowed in. They hold hands, glove to glove, not skin to skin. After a while, Mum leaves the room, and Judi enters. Only one person allowed in at a time. Enveloped in PPE, my sister, by his bed, phones us in Ireland. This is the last time I hear my dad breathe. We talk. My sister sings. We cry. Michael reads a Psalm “The Lord is my Shepherd” and says ‘The Grace” said at the end of every church service. My dad raises his hands in the style of the Church of Scotland, receiving the age-old blessing. We are silent in our world. We hear him breathe. I am with him if only in my head.
As the days pass, apprehensive and fearful, wait for news. Conversations at home are filled with worry and uncertainty as we try to work out what to do. Do we stay, do we go? Will we get stopped if we try to travel? There is no road map. No helpful pathway to guide us in our grief during a pandemic. I walk the roads of our village, trying to think of what matters now. How many people elsewhere are doing the same? Do I need to see Dad one last time? Do Mum and Judi need me there, or is it more difficult with more people in the house? Mum is also isolating; we cannot bring risk with us. Can I grieve properly without seeing my dad or attending his burial?
Then, there was peace. Letting go. A presence of mind. Dad by my side. That is what family is. You are never quite alone. Their imprint is on your soul. Their voice in your head. Distant arms around you. That is what we have to hold onto, us, the virtual mourners. A life lived together to lean into. A relationship well-loved to give security. Our family had to adapt. Judi and Mum and gone through the dreadful weeks of PPE and seeing dad so very sick. We all needed him back in our minds, as he was. Well and himself. We shared photos, told stories, and made plans for the burial and for the time when we could grieve together as a family.
For us in Ireland, there was too much distance, too much aloneness.
Ireland does funerals well. The Irish understand loss and, even in this time of social distancing, we felt our community surround us. Candles were lit, cards dropped in, prayers said, and stories shared. On the day of Dad’s burial, people stood with us, quietly and in their own homes but they were there. How did we become these people linked by air, space, and WiFi, and not by touch?
My dad would say from time to time “Well, you have to die of something.” And, at 93 having lived through the great sweep of the 20th century, it took a pandemic to take him.
I cannot say that any part of this has been easy, but we are a family mourning the passing of a man whose life was full and whose time had come. We have gratitude for his long, rich life. So many other families are mourning lives interrupted. Younger lives taken before their time. And grief in this pandemic has no recognisable ritual. No funeral, no wake, and no bedside vigil. Instead, nurses hold iPads to the ears of those we love and are losing. Farewells are done by skype. Carers sit by the bedside where families used to sit.
It is hard to know the long-term effect of all of this. We will need time to reflect and remember. And, when we can safely travel, we will need to be together to ritualise our loss. For the moment, those surrounding such grieving families, should not underestimate the importance of the small ritual or gesture that can be offered. It is what we have for the moment.
Fiona McAuslan, Donabate, Ireland
photo of candles by Esteban Hernandez – unspash.com