Grief is a powerful and chaotic emotion even when the world’s not ending, but in this strange, still and anxious time of coronavirus, its challenge feels impossible.
My friend Paul died last week. We’d been close for 20 years. Not yet 60, he was bronzed and handsome, and he favoured cashmere sweaters in colours like lilac, and aqua, and rust. He had a musical background and still sang like the peal of a celebration bell – most often in his kitchen, over something vegetarian, cooking for guests.
Although Paul died in New Jersey, it was not from coronavirus. A lesion in his brain, found just a few months ago, turned out to be cancerous. There were 12 rounds of chemo, but Paul did not rally. He died leaving a husband, siblings and thousands – literally, thousands – of friends in broken-hearted shock.
The isolations of coronavirus have curtailed how death is done. There was not an end-of-life scene with a sudden house full of cousins serving tea and changing bedsheets while a crowd of weeping people made sad phone calls from the lounge. Instead, there were devastated statements of the facts from his partner on Facebook and comment threads had to hold his friends’ barely expressible sorrow. No one could jump into planes or taxi cabs and make the journey to swamp the bereaved with love, there will not – cannot – be a gathering for a funeral. The virus has atomised our mourning.
I am 16,000 miles away from New Jersey, and with no way to get there for now – for soon – for, maybe, forever; it might as well be a fantasyland where the walls between worlds are thin and Paul doesn’t have to be dead. I’m trapped in my house in Victoria as the invisible virus rages somewhere outside and there can’t even be a local farewell for Paul among his Australian friends. The only legally available hug is from my partner, and while he kindly responds, he never met Paul, and only knew him as a voice on the phone. So I sob, I break down, I can’t sleep, I weep and then I go quiet, and I feel it alone. The part of my brain that wants pain to stop screams, “Why are you even like this? Nothing around you has changed”. Because visibly, it hasn’t. Not in months.
Years ago, when my father died, I received wise advice to let my instincts guide the course of my grief and not perform grieving behaviour just to meet expectations. But the practical realities of coronavirus – the masks, the touchlessness, these imprisoning rooms – override all instincts. And I guess I’m feeling it so keenly now because Paul was such a globally social person that grieving in isolation feels perverse. A theatre producer and writer, he was a creature of the international festival circuit, like I was, with friendships that bloomed and travelled with him across continents. He was endlessly repeating stories about his friends to his friends so wherever we were in the world, because of Paul, it felt like we all knew each other. To not celebrate his life with a crowd, and swapped stories, and familiar strangers … it seems like a slight to the dead.
The shock of this grief has made me think, too, about how carelessly – before coronavirus – we may have accepted the globalisation of relationships. Until the day she died, my Nanna displayed a brass bell in her house that had been a parting gift from a friend decades before, a woman who’d moved back to Switzerland from Australia; it was given with recognition that time, distance and chance made it unlikely they’d ever see one another again, and they did not. The last time I saw Paul, we grabbed a coffee somewhere in Manhattan before my flight back to Melbourne and there were no gift bells or ceremonies, because – before coronavirus – we took it for granted that the only distance between us was a WhatsApp call and some Frequent Flyer points. Now he’s gone, I am here.
The emotional drama that goes with funerals can distract us from acknowledging their profound psychosocial importance; I hail from a rambunctious Irish-Australian clan where the traditional “wake” ceremony has facilitated punch-ups, lawsuits and one memorable hot summer ceremony where all the adults threw themselves – fully clothed – in a hotel pool. But as funeral directors gently remind their ever-unwilling clients, a funeral is not really about the dead – it’s about the living. The reason funeral rituals are universal to human culture is a psychological need to share our grief collectively; we gain strength from the understanding and empathy of others to process the complex magnitude of our loss.
Wrapped in a blanket on the floor today, and sobbing, I realised why death in the time of coronavirus creates a double ache that’s so acute.
I am grieving both a friend, and the chance to properly mourn him.
I miss you, Paul.
Source: The Guardian