Death and mourning in the age of coronavirus

Two writers share their experience of loss and remembrance during the pandemic.

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We are writing on our third lockdown Monday morning. A daughter in her twenties back home with a mother in her sixties, adapting separately to a new way of living: online working, cyber dating, live-streaming culture and Zooming friends who are lighting candles for Seder night.

That everything from work to sex to friendship now has its digital equivalence begs the question: is there anything that can’t be satisfied through technology? So far our experience shows it can offer a reasonable approximation to lives fully lived.

We take the dog to Hampstead Heath, like any other day, joining scattered walkers standing two metres apart. From one stretch of grass, we catch a glimpse of the Royal Free Hospital, where our step-mother and granny lived for 48 hours in a Covid-19 isolation room that we were unable to visit. Kath was a generous, funny, larger than life 75-year-old who, as a social worker, changed the lives of many in Brent.

We scrutinise the multiple floors of the Royal Free, searching for the window that might have been hers. She said she was in a room with a view when she rang. That she felt better now she could breathe with an oxygen mask. That she’d been rushed into hospital without packing anything – not even her toothbrush – apart from her phone. We told her she’d frightened us all. Not as much as I frightened myself, she’d chuckled. Her voice was almost hers. We were reassured, despite the intrusive bleeping of monitors.

An hour later her oxygen saturation levels suddenly dropped. They called her son, Ben, who had arranged for her to be admitted. He rushed to the hospital and cut a deal to be let in, along with his mum’s best friend, Diana, if they isolated themselves the following two weeks. They slept on the floor, caring for Kath, together with a wonderful, compassionate team. Her daughter, Rebecca, in a remote desert in Texas, wasn’t given that chance, making do with a faulty internet cable on the Mexican border. For two days the family exchanged frenzied calls between continents with intermittent wi-fi, unable to hug and touch and cry and hold each other as we waited for the news.

The night she died we couldn’t see her or say goodbye. Nor, more importantly, could her daughter. The following evening her neighbours in Willesden came out of their houses with balloons and flowers to stage their own noisy celebration of a hugely loved woman, banging pots and pans and bin lids. Her son watched from the front door as her daughter watched from Texas. There was nothing virtual about this primitive expression of grief.

Today we woke with a rare sense of purpose. It’s the first time since lockdown began that we’re allowed out. We return from the Heath to shower and wash our hair. We pull out smart clothes that haven’t been worn for weeks, and put on jewellery and make-up from a former life. The sun breaks out as we drive through deserted Camden Town, wondering if the police will stop us. We acknowledge the occasional pedestrian in Baker Street on their way to work, and pass a half-mile snake of shoppers in the Harrow Road, queuing for supplies.

The main gates of Kensal Green Cemetery are locked; it is closed to visitors. We drive towards Scrubs Lane, to an innocuous side entrance. A porter comes out of a hut looking suspicious. We’re pleased – almost proud – when he waves us through, instructing us to turn right at the green bins. We feel we’ve just passed a test of exclusivity, like fast-track passengers. Suddenly, we’re in deepest countryside with grassy verges, droopy daffodils and trees with skimpy leaves. No sound of the Harrow Road.

We’d arrived 45 minutes early. So had others, parked close to the chapel. We stand in awkward formation, two metres apart, feeling incredibly lucky. This was a privilege we’d never anticipated. The funeral is being live-streamed to everyone else, the hundreds of mourners who loved her: it is a film they’d never imagined having to watch.

The hearse draws up minutes before the service. In a panic, we send photos to her daughter, desperate to reach her, sharing everything we can of this moment: snaps of disjointed figures pacing the car park, her mother’s friends, sisters, her son. In return she shoots back an image of her laptop screen in front of the early-morning mountains, ready and waiting. An officiate reads out the rules: no touching each other, no more than two to a pew, no leaving of discarded tissues, no touching the coffin. Our emotions must be properly sanitised.

The service is half an hour long. It is intimate and tender. With ten people there is no spectacle or drama. It is 30 minutes of concentrated love. Her daughter’s comes first, in words read by another. Her son gives a brilliant tribute. We cry and laugh and hug our bodies as we leave the chapel with “Bring Me Sunshine” playing. Her daughter says that she stayed online long enough to see a coffin bearer return with everyone gone, whistling the song as he dealt with the coffin, the only person allowed to touch it.

We turn on our phones. An instant rush of feedback punctures the silence in messages pinged from across the world, from viewers who should have been mourners. We shout our goodbyes across the car park. Her son resolves to have the biggest party imaginable whenever that’s allowed.

In the evening, more texts and emails flash across our screens. One says Boris Johnson has been admitted to intensive care. We don’t understand why this is significant when the head of our family has died. And then we realise why it feels important: she caught the virus in the weeks of confusion before lockdown rules were enforced. This bungled leadership may have caused Kath’s death.

They said the streamed funeral would be uploaded and freely available for 28 days. Three weeks later, the technology hasn’t delivered because of the backlog of deaths. Our online lockdown life has resumed. We are no closer to mourning with our family.

Instead we watch with mounting anger the news about the government’s handling of the crisis. And though our question has been answered – technological ingenuity does have limitations, and there is no substitute for the human touch – it’s no longer relevant. The only question that matters now is how many of the thousands of deaths and lives destroyed could, in fact, have been prevented.

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