Opinion

Grief in Covid: ‘The pain was visceral yet I was entirely dislocated from it'

Big Issue Ambassador Sabrina Cohen-Hatton writes about the pain felt from dealing with grief via a screen during the coronavirus pandemic.

A woman sits alone in a sitting room looking at faces on a digital call, with a single candle alongside.

Traditional rituals have been replaced by online versions during the pandemic. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

I’m not sure why I was lying awake at 0545. Outside, the light was starting to break, but it wasn’t particularly bright. I was listening to the infrequent hum of cars as they passed by the house. And then I heard it. The buzz of a message landing in my phone.

It’s funny how devastating a binary code of zeros and ones can be once they become text. I knew who it was. I knew what it was going to say. I reached for my phone stared at the message icon. For a moment, I was playing Schrodinger’s cat with the news I knew was coming, and I knew I couldn’t stop.

My uncle had passed. We knew it was imminent and I had said my goodbyes the day before. Under usual circumstances, I would have been there to do so in person, but I was in lockdown and he was in another country. So I did it by video call instead. It felt cold, impersonal and the lack of intimacy is something that I found deeply troubling.

People wail. People scream. People hold each other tightly and express collective grief

If saying a virtual goodbye was a difficult experience, being at a funeral by videolink was by far the toughest. I come from a Moroccan Jewish family. Culturally, there is a lot of outward emotion at our funerals. And I mean a lot. People wail. People scream. People hold each other tightly and express collective grief. This was all unravelling in front of me in HD. I could catch bits of conversation, glimpses of people falling to pieces.

The pain was visceral, yet I was entirely dislocated from it. I was stuck inside my little screen. I couldn’t catch someone’s eye or give a reassuring smile. I was a voyeur. I was unable to do anything other than watch on and quietly weep into a phone screen, my dog gently resting his head on my knee as my only comfort. That discombobulated feeling was not something I’d anticipated, nor is it something I ever wish to repeat.

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After Jewish funerals, the immediate family sits Shiva for seven days. We sit on the floor to symbolise the humility brought about by loss. We don’t cook or clean or expend any effort on our appearance. People visit, like an open house, bringing food to ensure we focus solely on passing through our grief. We simply sit, we talk, and we remember.

It’s a cathartic part of the healing process where we’re reminded of the people we have, not just the hole left by the ones we’ve lost. It starts to paint the light back into the shade. The absence of Shiva is just another cruel way that the pandemic has interrupted grief.

The reality is there are thousands of people who lost loved ones during the pandemic for whom “virtual grieving” was the only option. The pain of not being able to be there to comfort someone you love, not sharing their last moments after a lifetime of memories together, is utterly unimaginable to most. In comparison, I have a lot to be grateful for.

None of us like to think about our own mortality – I know I would rather blissfully live on under the assumption that it will be forever. But the pandemic has brought the fragility of life that little bit closer to us all.

If you can take anything at all from the embers, let it show you, unequivocally, that you are stronger than you knew you were

We’d all like to imagine our own funerals being packed to the rafters with people remembering us fondly. Funerals are very different right now. Permitted numbers are much limited – now up to 30 in England – although only if the location has sufficient space to socially distance. None of us would imagine that our closest kin would be watching on, helplessly, via videolink.

As the world eventually returns to a form of normality, for some, it will be without the person they were with the last time the world was normal. That can make emerging from this epoch more emotionally disorientating.

It’s not just the grief. Such sudden losses will have an array of other detrimental impacts. Some will be disproportionately affected. A lost loved one may also mean a loss of crucial childcare, social and practical support. If you’re on a low income, you’re less likely to be able to buy in such help and this can have a real and lasting impact on your ability to work and subsequent financial security.

We may get through the second wave, but here comes a tsunami of poor mental health, financial hardships and social readjustments. The impacts are real, and we need to be ready for that.

The pandemic has isolated us – as a necessary evil – from human contact at a time when so many needed that comfort the most. For those who have experienced the isolation and emptiness of virtual grieving, my heart goes out to you. I have enormous admiration for your strength and courage. If you can take anything at all from the embers, let it show you, unequivocally, that you are stronger than you knew you were… and you will be even stronger than you are now. This too shall pass.

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton is a Big Issue Ambassador. She is chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire Service and her book, The Heat of the Moment, is out now (Black Swan, £8.99)

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