It’s a Collective Nightmare, but We Do it Alone

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It's a Collective Nightmare, but We Do it Alone


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‘If life doesn’t come with a manual, it sure as shit doesn’t come with a guide to comforting your husband as he watches the funeral of a man who helped shape the person he is today.’ Anna Rawhiti-Connell on loss in the time of Covid. 

Last Thursday afternoon, ostensibly on holiday in the Wairarapa, I sat with my husband on a couch that didn’t belong to us, in a house that wasn’t ours, and watched his mum say goodbye to her brother on the same TV we’d been glued to the night before watching US election coverage.

The same TV that allowed us to join hundreds of millions of others in a collective holding of breath, wondering whether the moral arc of the universe would bend the right way, now dropped us into our own, isolated island of grief to live-stream loss in the time of Covid.

My husband’s Uncle Mike died in Sydney, where he’d lived with family for the last 23 years, on Sunday November 1. My mother-in-law, Karen, was the only New Zealand-based family member who travelled over to be with him in his last days. Mike had Down syndrome and Karen was his legal guardian.

If life doesn’t come with a manual, it sure as shit doesn’t come with a guide to comforting your husband as he watches his mum sit in a chair, spaced 2m apart from everyone else, attending the funeral of a man who helped shape the person he is today. There is no WikiHow on what to do when a son can’t put his arms around his mother at a time when every fibre in his grieving body is crying out to do just that. I put my arms around him, honouring the promise I made to Karen on the phone to look after him, but I also know it’s the very definition of a consolation prize.

Most cultures have evolved practices that, through the breaking of bread and the sharing of stories, pull us out of our isolation and individual grief and back into the collective experience of farewelling a loved one. It provides a kind of temporary, full stop to the profound intensity of loss.

The service itself was lovely. Mike was brought into the chapel to ‘Jailhouse Rock’. The Australian celebrant did an admirable job of pronouncing the Māori words sprinkled throughout the emailed tributes. Someone did a haka and the service ended with ‘Hine e Hine’, gently tethering Mike to his whānau watching in the same way we were, back in Aotearoa.

And then it ended. The room emptied out and our last act in the formal proceedings on our side of the ditch was to yank the HDMI cable out of the laptop.

At every funeral I’ve ever been to, necessary catharsis is often found in what my Irish-Catholic, rugby-loving family describe as the ‘after match’. Most cultures have evolved practices that, through the breaking of bread and the sharing of stories, pull us out of our isolation and individual grief and back into the collective experience of farewelling a loved one. It provides a kind of temporary, full stop to the profound intensity of loss. Irreverence counters reverence, jokes replace solemnity and food nourishes both body and soul. These communal experiences ground us, reminding us of the legacy of love left behind by the person we have said goodbye to. They exist not as frivolous excuses for a hooley but as a necessary part of moving us through to the next stage.

We are doing everything we’re meant to do as players in this collective nightmare and still, we are doing it alone.

This experience was lost to us and many of Mike’s whānau last Thursday. It is perhaps no accident that a friend living in the Wairarapa intuitively extended an invitation to sit on her porch and eat and drink with them that night. We will be eternally grateful for the wine and the perfectly fresh chips.

We are not alone in our experience. We are not alone in living through a year of grief, disappointment, frustration and anger. This anecdote is one of many floating about in an ocean of uncertainty and loss, yet it feels profoundly isolating.

The great irony of all of us collectively living through a pandemic is that it has also stolen away the communal experiences that are vital to helping us cope and, as everyone drags around their own boulders of hurt, you can’t help but play a constant game of putting things in perspective. Though we are urged to think collectively and to be kind, we can often feel as if we’re alone, stanching the bleeding by ourselves, scared to turn to others. Who are we to bring our problems to your door when you have your own?

For my husband’s family, the absence of natural process continues. Karen is still in Sydney, unsure when she will get home because this wasn’t a situation where she was able to confirm a return date. She is now participating in the daily lottery of trying to get a voucher for managed isolation and may not be home, with Mike’s ashes, until after Christmas.

It is yet another situation where we are not unique. Everyone is being asked to put aside their individual circumstances for the greater good. We understand, we’re being patient and we know people are just doing their job. We’re being grateful and putting things in perspective. We are managing our emotions and expectations. We are being resilient and kind. We are doing everything we’re meant to do as players in this collective nightmare and still, we are doing it alone.

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