The coronavirus is impacting every area of our lives, including our ability to grieve. With restrictions now placed on funerals and some councils starting to ban funeral services altogether, it is becoming even harder to say goodbye to someone we love.
Lorraine Dallas, our Director of Information and Support, understands this. She attended the funeral of her sister-in-law the day after the restrictions were announced. Here, she opens up about her personal experience of losing a loved one during the pandemic and the impact it has had on her family’s ability to grieve:
“I, along with many of my work colleagues, our patient advocates and most of those who we work with, are impacted by cancer both professionally and personally. I have spent more than 20 years working in cancer charities and have no delusion on the impact cancer has on families, communities and work colleagues. My family has been no different than any other, with mums, grannies and nieces in law diagnosed, living and dying with cancer.
For the last few months, I have been trying to support my brother as his wife faced, struggled with and died from metastatic cancer. Her funeral was due to take place the day after Boris Johnson announced lockdown. My last social engagement was attending the crematorium to say goodbye to Graeme’s beloved Caroline. We were grateful that funerals were permitted, though restricted as social gatherings.
Walking into the crematorium and seeing 20 chairs, each a neat 2 meters apart was shocking.
My youngest brother, Fraser, piped Amazing Grace as he accompanied the hearse to the doors. The last time we gathered as a family with him piping at our head was for Graeme and Caroline’s wedding last September. She had just found out her cancer had spread to her bones, so the wedding was especially poignant.
For her funeral, we walked beside, but not touching Graeme, his twin, Caroline’s 12 year old daughter Melissa and 17 year old son Ross. Ross had spent his 17th birthday, which coincided with mother’s day, mourning and missing. A full grown boy too young not to need his mother’s love.
My amazing extended family amounts to 30 + if you include partners, children, step children, grandbabies and only the closest family! We did not realise that we were lucky to be allowed 18 of us at the funeral.
The usual family pall bearers – my 2 eldest brothers and their eldest sons – were replaced with a trolley bearing the coffin into the room for the service. Walking into the crematorium and seeing 20 chairs, each a neat 2 meters apart was shocking. Signs, hand sanitiser reminded us this wasn’t departure of the dead in ordinary circumstances but a death overtaken by a pandemic, by the chance to limit some of those which will follow.
The British are considered non-tactile, not emotionally expressive. When you can’t safely cuddle a 72 year old woman grieving the loss of her beautiful girl, or have to watch your brother’s tear lined face as he talks honestly of his late found, short-lived soul mate, you know our hearts are worn closer to our sleeves than COVID-19 permits.
Caroline’s funeral went from a service to a gathering. There was no offering of tea, no sharing memories, and no nip of whiskey to mark the occasion. These were all other small COVID-19 sacrifices.
I know that grieving is a much longer, more painful road than a few hours in the local hotel. But marking our care for each other, sharing tears, being distracted by the antics of the toddler grand-children are a bonding as well as healing activity. It is a social convention for a reason, a time to embrace the grieving and remember the lost.
Given the social distancing restrictions I feel my hands are tied, my coping strategies are reduced. Having inherited the role of family matriarch, I am utterly bereft not to be able to pop in on my brother and his kids with a week’s worth of lasagne or shepherd’s pie. For the past few months this has been my way to show Graeme and Caroline that I care, my pledge to do the little things I can to soften the chasm left by unfillable shoes.
We adapt and adjust as people, even to the loss of those most precious and loved. I have found it difficult, not being able to hug my brother, having to video conference to sing Melissa happy 13th birthday. All these small steps apart make grief feel far more isolating and remote.
Finding a new outlet
A Facebook page seeking donations to the hospice which cared for Caroline in her final few weeks was a form of social support and finding a silver lining in a cloudy sky, but no funeral donations were allowed. Graeme was touched by the messages of support, the donations that flowed freely, even when people had no certainty what their income might be in the month ahead.
A week on from Caroline’s funeral Graeme and Ross have furthered the fundraising pledge by shaving their heads. It reminds me of the traditions which distinguished those in bereavement, the black clothes, the social isolation.
There are no easy ways through grief, no short cut to it being okay when a loved and loving person is a memory. Doing what we can to say goodbye, to remember the causes that a person held dear is harder just now.
My brother acknowledged his “lucky timing” in being able to have a small public funeral. He knows those who loved Caroline will come to her memorial service when it is possible to do that without creating more waves of grief.”