Anne Thériault: Some Deaths Are Lonelier Than Others

The coronavirus has taken away our ability to grieve collectively, forcing us to find new ways to mourn

I have been carrying around a strange guilt lately: I feel grateful that my grandmother died in November. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined myself feeling anything positive about her death, but the pandemic has granted me an acute case of hindsight—of all the luxuries we had without realizing it.

As deaths go, my grandmother’s was an ordinary enough one for an elderly woman. Her health had been declining during the nearly two decades since my grandfather’s death, and ever since she was hospitalized in early 2019, it had seemed clear that she didn’t have much time left. The end itself happened over the course of a few days, granting her children in other provinces time to travel home to be with her when she died.

Over the next few days, the rest of the family arrived in my grandmother’s small Quebec town and began preparing for the funeral. We picked the music and the readings, cooked big meals in her kitchen, and talked about her late into the night over glass after glass of wine. The service was held in our family church, whose cornerstone my grandfather had placed and where most of us grandchildren and great-grandchildren had been baptized. It was sad in the way a long-expected death is sad, one you’ve had months to grieve in anticipation.

The only moment when I felt unmoored was at the cemetery, way up in the forest at the top of Mount Royal. After we had all commented on the beautiful view, after touching her coffin one last time, after they’d lowered her into the ground and we turned to walk back to the car, I had an urge to run back and grab her out of the grave. It had been snowing for days and it was so cold outside and she was so small and now we were just going to leave her there alone while we drove back to the nice warm house and had dinner together. I hated the thought that she had to be stuck there, freezing and lonely, while I get to keep moving through life.

Now, of course, I can’t help thinking how fortunate we were that she died just before COVID-19 began in earnest. Friends who have lost family members during the pandemic tell me about watching funerals over Zoom or Facebook Live; one Twitter acquaintance described viewing her grandmother’s funeral over video chat as it took place in a parking lot half a world away. The people left living are distraught over what feels like a lack of dignity for the dead. They carry a lot of guilt about not being able to change things.

Valerie Wagemans, from Herentals, Belgium, wishes that when saw her grandmother on March 8 she had known that it was their last chance to be together. When her grandmother was hospitalized in April with what turned out to be the coronavirus, her father and his siblings had to make the heart-wrenching choice of who among them would be the sole person allowed to visit her if her case became critical. Valerie’s father, bundled up in PPE, video-chatted with his siblings from their dying mother’s bedside; that night, she slipped away in her sleep. The family were able to have a funeral, but they had to maintain two metres’ distance from each other.

“Seeing my dad greet his mom for the last time, breaking down as he walked away and not being able to hug him…it was a knife to my heart,” says Wagemans. “Afterwards, we said a few words to each other, from afar, and each got back into our own cars and drove without having that much needed time among family to try and come to terms with it.”

Wagemans knows she’s one of the lucky ones, in that her grandmother was able to have a visitor at the end and they were able to have a funeral, but that kind of luck isn’t much comfort. Like many of the people I know who are grieving pandemic deaths, she speaks of not knowing how to process the loss without the familiar customs.

“Funeral rituals have a benefit to the people who are grieving when their lives have been turned upside down,” says social work researcher Susan Cadell. “They serve a purpose of being a road map at a time when there are no directions.”

Not having that map right now is a bitter loss. Part of what people are struggling with is the fact that, in the middle of all this death, it feels like the script for how we navigate it has been taken away. What do you do when someone dies and you can’t perform the usual rites, which for many have the added complication of also being religiously significant? How do you honour someone’s life right now in a way that feels worthy of them? In what ways can we make individual deaths feel meaningful when they’re just one among so many other deaths?

There are also, Cadell says, cultural expectations surrounding our role in what happens when people we know are sick or dying. We’re accustomed to being able to sit with someone while they are sick and suffering, to comfort and bear witness as they die. Even pre-pandemic, this could be challenging; physical proximity doesn’t change the fact that the dying person is on a journey on which no one can accompany them. I think of Simone de Beauvoir writing in A Very Easy Death that even though she and her sister never left their mother’s bedside in her last days, they experienced a profound feeling of separation from her, that “each [dying person] experiences the adventure in solitude.” The coronavirus has brought many of us to the stark realization that some deaths are much lonelier than others, adding to the powerlessness and fear everyone is going through right now. It’s like that same awful sensation of walking away and leaving my grandmother deserted in her grave, only amplified exponentially.

According to psychotherapist Megan Devine, creator of the online community Refuge in Grief, these feelings are another layer of the grieving we’re experiencing right now. She tells me that coping with it can begin as simply as admitting that things are rough.

“Acknowledgement is medicine,” says Devine. “And yes, it sucks right now.”

For Devine, one of the most important functions that in-person funerals provide is the chance to share bereavement in a way that doesn’t require talking.

“Without being able to gather together, we can’t hug each other or meet in that place beyond words,” says Devine. “Touch is the bridge there. We miss that wordless place.”

In spite of that, Devine emphasizes that our current isolation and social distancing practices don’t have to preclude us from creating new meaningful ways to mark the end of a life. Her view is that there is no expiration date on when a funeral or memorial has to happen; one way we can cope with the present is by planning events for a time when it’s possible to gather in person again. She also suggests looking for ways to make online funerals or other events feel more personal. Families might all separately cook the favourite meal of a deceased person and then log on to Zoom to eat together, or make a shared Google map where they mark the places that were significant to the person who died, or take turns playing songs that remind them of the person they’ve lost. Those who are grieving can also try practicing their own private rituals; Devine says that these can be as simple as setting aside some time every morning or evening to sit with a photo of the dead person, maybe with a candle and a cup of tea. Drawing inspiration from 18th century poet William Blake, who used to have regular conversations with his dead brother, she suggests trying to talk to the person. Having these quiet touchpoints can help you stay grounded in the present.

Both Devine and Cadell emphasize that, contrary to the social messaging we receive, funerals don’t provide an ending to grief. Rituals mark an occasion and give us a structure within which to express our feelings, but they can’t solve the feelings themselves. If we’re looking forward to life (and death) returning to some version of normal as a panacea for these overwhelming emotions, we’re probably going to be disappointed. We will no doubt be working through our collective grief for many years to come. What we can draw comfort from right now is that, even though things are incredibly difficult, we’re already finding new ways to do that.

I’m still grieving my grandmother’s death, even though it happened nearly six months ago. I feel guilty about that, too, because I know that the circumstances surrounding the end of her life were so much more favourable than they would be now. How can I still be sad about such a comparatively good death when other people have much fresher, more awful deaths to mourn? But it’s not a zero sum game, and there’s still room to miss her even with everything else that’s going on.

I’m trying out Devine’s suggestion of sitting with a photograph of her; it’s on the table next to me as I type this out. In it, she’s a little girl in the backyard of her childhood house, her arms thrown around her sister and brother. She’s smiling at someone out of the frame and if I position the picture just right, I can catch her gaze. I don’t know if I’m at the point where I could have an imaginary conversation with her, but her lips are parting, as if she’s about to speak.