Grief, Interrupted

Jude Wanga

Covid-19 has taken more than 100,000 lives in the UK. Restrictions mean that no more than thirty people can go to a funeral. But a funeral is not supposed to be a small, intimate affair, in the way a wedding or baptism can be. There’s a Congolese saying: ‘A family doesn’t bury its dead on its own.’ But what do you do when a community can’t come together, whether financially or spiritually, to aid a mourning family?

When a friend’s mother died early in the first lockdown, she told me how not being able to sit shiva left her feeling blocked. I sympathised, but didn’t really begin to understand until a few months later.

My mother’s sister, my aunt Marie, died last summer. My uncle, who had never met his sister, having left before she was born, was unable to fly back to Congo for the funeral as he had been shielding in place in London since lockdown began. The funeral directors said they could set up an internet video link for the family abroad. When this idea was floated to me, I recoiled in horror: a funeral isn’t an episode on Netflix. On the day, the stream failed after a minute. I was quietly relieved.

So when my father passed away at the end of last year, I had a false sense of preparedness for the Zoom funeral.

By Congolese custom, a family comes together to mourn for seven days before a burial. But our family is split between two continents. Unable to fly back to Congo in time, I was stuck. Away from my mother, away from my siblings. Arranging a funeral in Covid times is no easy feat. Sitting through my father’s funeral service on Zoom, I realised exactly what my friend had meant about feeling stuck. My father was being buried, but instead of the warmth of the church congregation to hold me and help me through the tears, I was met with pixelation. A disjointed eulogy for the man who gave me life as the internet connection dipped in and out. My tears falling as I watched my father’s body carried to his final resting place, then a blank screen. Five seconds of darkness, then back to the stream. But my father had already been lowered into the ground.

In some Christian traditions there is a forty-day mourning period for the family and friends to process their loss, with a memorial mass on the fortieth day. My father’s forty days were reached last week, but to me it feels as if he only passed away last week. My brother’s forty days will be in two weeks’ time, but we only buried him this week.

How do you complete the mourning process when the first step is so disjointed and stuttered? I fear you don’t. I fear for all of us around the world who have lost a loved one during this pandemic – whether to other causes, like my father, or to Covid-19, like my brother, who passed away a week after our father’s burial – the process of mourning will never be complete. To call it traumatic is not an exaggeration.

In medical terms, complicated grief occurs when the grieving process is prolonged because the bereaved person avoids or is unable to have a successful mourning period, often resorting to avoidance or being unable to cope with the consequences of loss. It is not depression, as grief is not depression, but it presents in similar ways. Some seven per cent of people are diagnosed with complicated grief.

What can we call the process of mourning through a pandemic but ‘complicated grief’? What to call the disjointed sensation of watching the funeral of a loved one on a blurry computer link, other than traumatic?

Post traumatic stress disorder occurs when the brain can’t process a traumatic event into memory. Rather than fading with time, it remains current and live. Think of a record playing. When it’s running as it should, a song finishes and the needle plays to the next song and on to the end of the record. With PTSD, the needle is stuck, skipping and scratching, the song unable to finish.

My father’s death could not be called unexpected. He had, after all, just turned 85 (we had been supposed to spend Christmas together in 2020, to celebrate our birthdays). And it was always going to be a difficult bereavement process for me, when we had missed so much of one another, living a continent apart. But I find myself in uncharted waters. The pain and anguish just about propelled me through the administrative nightmare of finding him a burial plot in a race against the clock, as the morgue would only hold his body for a limited number of days.

I’m at the funeral home where my brother’s body is lying. I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to go in. This seems weird, given that one of my first jobs was at a coroner’s office, but there I never actually had to touch or even see the bodies. Resolve sets in once I go through the doors. I know I’m going to go inside, even though I am terrified. Maybe it’s because my mother asked her daughters to go this morning as she couldn’t, stuck as she is on the other side of the world. Maybe it’s because I was denied a chance to say goodbye properly, and this is my only opportunity. He looks peaceful. This is the closest I have been to a dead body, ever. And it’s my brother. The man who bought me my first guitar, and would begrudgingly drive me wherever I asked him. To college, to the railway station, to Staines to visit a boyfriend. I’m flanked by my sister and my aunt. I start crying immediately. There is no comfort for me. He’s there. He looks like he’s sleeping, but his chest isn’t moving up and down. His snoring, long a joke in our family and among his friends, is missing. The silence. I sit in a chair, afraid to get any closer. My family are praying and I join them, but at the end under my breath I am whispering: ‘Please wake up. Please wake up.’ My brother shouldn’t be dead. I get a few seconds alone with him at the end. I tell him I love him and I thank him for being my brother and loving me back. That’s it. My father and my brother. Both gone.

But it doesn’t feel real. The mourning feels disconnected, staccato. I look in the mirror and don’t recognise myself. I eat but don’t really taste the food. Sometimes I’m even able to laugh, with my best friend or my sister, or my godchildren, but I don’t feel that warmth inside.

I’m standing at my brother’s graveside. The snow is falling, an inclement day for a burial. My mother’s sister is by my side. My sister on the other. Behind me, my brother’s best friends. It’s the most comfort I have had since the pandemic began. I feel their love and security, and for the briefest moment, I’m able to let go. I feel the tears falling and my body heaving with sobs.

The NBA star Karl-Anthony Towns lost seven members of his family to Covid-19. He said he no longer remembered who he was before his mother died. ‘If I can be honest with y’all for a second, I mean, I don’t really recall or really care. I only know what happened from April 13 on. Because you may see me smiling and stuff, but that Karl died on April 13. He’s never coming back. I don’t remember that man. I don’t know that man. You’re talking to the physical me, but my soul has been killed off a long time ago.’

His words have stuck with me. There are now two Judes. The Jude before my father and brother died, and the Jude after. The before Jude wasn’t a complete product, it would be foolish to pretend. But she was a work in progress. She smiled. She found a way to get past pain. Occasionally, she had hopes and dreams.

I’m not sure what the after Jude looks like. It’s early days yet. But I know that a part of me has been buried with my father and my brother. Those parts will never come back. New parts might grow. But I have been fundamentally changed. There is no closure. No final chapter. No poignant moments of holding hands with my loved ones and letting them know I loved them as they take their final breaths. No family sitting with me for a week, to bring food, care, love, hugs. No hugs at church, or at the cemetery.

There’s just nothing. There may never be anything again. I am broken. I am a skipping record, a stutter in time.

This is grief, interrupted.