Death in a pandemic: ‘Gavin and I had to put our grief on the back burner’

Families mourn ‘in a vacuum’, emigrants can’t come home, funeral directors try to cope

Wednesday, March 11th, 2020 is sometimes referred to as the day the world stopped. The WHO declared a pandemic. Then-taoiseach Leo Varadkar was in Washington, where he would end up give a speech announcing that schools would close and asking people to stay home.

For Sheena and Gavin Hattie, it is the day the world shattered.

At home in Ratoath, Co Meath that morning, their baby son, Conor stirred after a long sleep. It was his first birthday, and his parents were cuddling him in bed, when his breathing changed. “I knew something would happen,” Sheena says, the grief still raw in her voice.

In his mother’s arms, Conor opened “his beautiful blue eyes and looked at the two of us. And then he passed away.”

There are no words to encapsulate the grief of knowing that your child will die from a terminal illness, or the pain of watching him slip from life. What Sheena would like people to try to understand is the “nightmare within a nightmare” that is the experience of grieving during a pandemic.

“Bereavement during Covid is the exact opposite to what a family in our position would want or need.” It is, she says, “a special type of hell.”

‘Everyone left’

Conor appeared perfectly healthy when he was born one year earlier. At two weeks old, he developed extremely bad reflux. Then, “the day he turned four months old, he started crying and didn’t stop.”

After tests ruled out everything else, he was eventually diagnosed with an extremely rare, incurable brain disorder called Krabbe disease. Sheena and Gavin took him home in October 2019 to care for him with the help of “amazing circle of women” – a team of nurses and carers from HSE, Laura Lynn, Jack and Jill, Enable Ireland, their GP, Conor’s grandparents and family friends.

They were on their way to meet the funeral director on March 12th, when the restrictions on funerals were announced. Emma's creche closed that evening

“Our house was a train station. The door was never locked. He just wanted cuddles. Everyone just cuddled him.”

One of Sheena’s ways of coming to terms with the unbearable knowledge that her little boy would not survive was to form what she calls “an escape plan” for afterwards. “My daughter Emma (who was almost three when her brother died) is obsessed with buses, trains and planes. In my head, it was like, I’m going to bring her on every bus, on every train, on a plane.”

Throughout January and February last year, Conor became progressively sicker. Sheena was dimly aware of “something coming out of China”.

But “it wasn’t until Conor died that everything, at the exact same moment, kicked off.” They were on their way to meet the funeral director on March 12th, when the restrictions on funerals were announced. Emma’s creche closed that evening.

On Saturday, March 14th, they held a service for Conor with limited numbers at Dardistown. “And then, everyone left.” That day “was the last time we hugged our parents, who have the double, unthinkable heartbreak of watching their children pre-deceased by their beautiful brave baby.”

The “escape plan” couldn’t happen; they haven’t even been able to take Emma on a train. “She said to me last week, Mammy when coronavirus is over, will you take me on a bus?”

For now, “the three of us are locked down in our house, absolutely breaking. Each one of us is breaking. Gavin and I have had to put our grief on the back burner. We haven’t really started to deal with it. Because we’re just trying to survive and get Emma the help she needs.”

“What does bereavement during Covid look like? It looks like a vacuum,” says Sheena.

Loneliest sight

In so-called normal times, an average of 28,000 people die every year. At the time of writing, over 5,200 on the island of Ireland have died with Covid-19. Behind those figures is a long thread of grief that has yet to unspool. The small, broken figures in vast churches. The hands not clasped at funerals. The comforting formula of “I’m-sorry-for-your-troubles” not uttered.

Funeral directors have done their best to replicate those rituals. Online books of condolence on rip.ie have replaced the hug or handshake outside the church. Removals and funerals are livestreamed. Friends and neighbours line the roads by the family home – to bless themselves, or place a hand on their heart as the hearse passes.

Funeral director Jim Falconer, who is based in Tramore, Co Waterford, tells a story when he is asked to describe how the pandemic has affected funerals and the way we mourn. “The instance that jumps to my mind is the old lady sitting out in the car on a wet morning outside the church, watching her husband’s requiem mass on her phone.”

She couldn’t go in, because she was a close contact for Covid.

The loneliest sight in the world, he thinks, is a vast church with just 10 people inside. “It’s just awful.”

Different type of grief

How do you describe the experience of grieving in a pandemic? “It’s difficult. It’s lonely. At points I was angry. It’s cold. It’s different. It’s challenging. It’s abnormal. It’s totally alien,” says Majella Beattie, whose mother, Mary Jane Meade, died in October, having contracted Covid-related pneumonia last May.

Mary Jane recovered from Covid-19, but the virus left her badly compromised. Beattie’s father, Christy Meade, died 18 months earlier, so Beattie has direct experience of grief before and after Covid.

On the day of her mother’s funeral: “I’ll never forget the sound of the cathedral doors closing”, leaving the mourners outside. “The streets were lined with people, and they were trying to catch my eye, to acknowledge me. There was her former GP, and people who would have been her very best friends years ago. They wouldn’t have been on the list [of 10 mourners]. It felt like I was closing these people out. It was like a knife in my heart.”

Around the country, from Dublin to Clare to the Waterford, funeral directors tell versions of the same story

Brenda Lawlor is one of those who has had to mourn from afar. Her grandmother, Sheila Bowler, died aged 99 on New Year’s Eve, slipping peacefully away. “She was an Irish dancing teacher, and healthy as a horse all her life.”

Lawlor watched her grandmother’s funeral alone in her apartment in Dubai. “I have never cried as deeply as I did on that day. You feel bad for grieving, because so many people have had so much worse stories in this pandemic.”

Her cousin called on WhatsApp, “and I was able to see everybody standing outside their houses: our neighbours, my sister and brother outside our house. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as isolated as I did in that day. That’s everyone’s story now. It’s just a very different type of grief. There’s a sense that this isn’t actually real.”

Not ‘natural’

Around the country, from Dublin to Clare to the Waterford, funeral directors tell versions of the same story: the heartbroken families trying to whittle their list of mourners; the live-streaming of funerals; the difficulty for people who are in the business of offering comfort of having to do that from a distance.

“It has been challenging to say the least,” says PJ Murphy of Murphy’s Funeral Home in Kilmaley, Co Clare.

“Our natural instinct, particularly in Ireland, is to hug, or to embrace. Now you have to touch another person with your words or your deeds.”

A funeral director’s job has always been to support the family but now they also have to ensure the social distancing guidelines are followed. Ninety-nine per cent of people are compliant, Murphy says.

“If we at any stage have noticed any kind of gathering that’s a little bit too close or outside of guidelines, we would usually make a public announcement. If not, we will actually discreetly approach a group and ask them if they will kindly separate.” It’s understandable, he says. “Our instinct is to comfort.”

“When someone has lived a long and healthy life and they pass away naturally, those funerals are easier to deal with,” says Robert Maguire, a director of Massey Bros funeral directors in Dublin, who has seen some sad funerals in his time. But the funerals of those who died from Covid are even sadder: “When people aren’t able to have their loved one at home, to have the coffin open, to kiss their loves one, to hold the loved one’s hand. They might be in the hospital, they might be in the nursing home, they would be fully dressed up in PPE. And that’s not ‘natural’ to me.”

The stress of this past year – and particularly the past month – for funeral directors, who are trying to keep their colleagues and their own families safe, has been immense, Maguire says.

“In the last number of weeks, it’s quite frightening. Nearly 50 per cent of the funerals we’ve had in the last two to three weeks have been Covid-related. We don’t see any end in sight at the moment.”

Since the beginning of this year, in some parts of the country, funerals of people who died with Covid are outnumbering the funerals of people who died of other causes. In Waterford – which currently has the second highest 14-day incidence in the country – funeral director Michael Thompson points out that there were just two funerals for people who had died of Covid-19 in the city in 2020. The first week in January was normal, he says. But over the subsequent two weeks, the funeral home he runs with his father, Robert Thompson Funeral Directors, had 20 funerals for people who died with coronavirus.

The hardest part for families is not being able to see their loved one laid out, but funeral directors are doing everything they can. “If you’re gowned up, you can do small things like putting something in the coffin, or taking some jewellery to pass onto the family,” he says. “That can make a big difference.”

Ruptured rituals

The rituals of mourning have been ruptured by the pandemic, says Orla Keegan, head of bereavement support services at the Irish Hospice Foundation.

People are struggling with “the change of practice of rituals and funerals, in those deep scripts that are cultural and automatic and provide some solace.”

The result is a sense of “isolation [for the bereaved], the fact that we don’t have the opportunity to make the public tribute, or to receive the sense of comfort we would normally receive. Irish society has been really struck by the loss of that.”

In Dublin, Maguire has noticed a more visible sense of solemnity and respect for the hearse now, something that had begun to fade in recent years

But “there is a flipside, and that is that people really try and be creative in how they are expressing their condolences.”

If there is some solace, says Murphy, it’s that “times of sorrow and grief actually bind and unite people more than times of joy”.

He describes “what it’s like to come over the crest of a hill in rural Ireland and see a road lined with people. That would take your breath away as a funeral director, and it takes the family’s breath away. They feel the support. It’s tangible.”

“You’d have a lump in your throat,” agrees Michael Thompson.

One other positive has been the emergence of rip.ie as a place for people to share their condolences or their memories of the deceased person, which Thompson says is hugely important. Funeral directors print those off and pass them on to the family.

In Dublin, Maguire has noticed a more visible sense of solemnity and respect for the hearse now, something that had begun to fade in recent years. “When I’m out in the hearse, the respect it gets is so much more than it was two years ago.”

What we could now usefully do as a society, Keegan suggests, “is to move it beyond the funeral, and to think about people in the months after, and to think of them locked down since January. Anything that might have provided a bit of respite or social support isn’t available to you in a natural way. Everything has to be mediated through a screen, through Zoom.”

Day of reflection

As a society, how will we come to terms with the long-tail of all this unacknowledged grief?

For now, Murphy says, pick up the phone and call someone who is bereaved. Or send a note. And when the pandemic has ended, “we should have a national day of remembrance,” he suggests. “For all people who have passed away during that time. Because, unfortunately, life can move on. And the last thing, as I think any of us would want going forward is for anybody to feel forgotten, or left behind.”

Keegan would like us to have a national day of reflection, or a day of listening.

Majella Beattie likes the idea that we will be able to do something on a societal level. “My mother was such a big person. She touched so many lives. She deserves to be recognised. Even if it’s a year late, I would find some healing in that.”

Sheena and Gavin Hattie will find a way to celebrate Conor’s life with the “amazing” people who cared for him. “Before Covid hit, Gavin had said, when Conor dies I’m going to have a barbecue with all his nurses and carers to celebrate his life, and to say thank you.”

Grief in a pandemic, for Sheena, is moments of unbearable grief, anger, disbelief, sadness, worry and hopelessness. And it is also moments of unexpected kindness. It is being stopped by a guard over Easter weekend, and telling him that you’re driving for your mental health, because it’s four weeks since your baby son died.

Grief is way you feel when the guard walks silently to his van, and comes back with an Easter egg for the sad little girl in the back seat.

“The kindness we’ve experienced has been unbelievable. People are just amazing, and that’s how we got through it. One of Conor’s nurses still texts me every single day with emojis, just to see how I am.”

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is a feature writer and opinion columnist with The Irish Times