Fintan O’Toole: We must not allow coronavirus pandemic to rob us of grief

There is no such thing as mass death – people die one by one and each is unique

The great vindictiveness of the virus is that it robs us of the rituals of grieving: no wakes, no big funeral Masses or secular celebrations. Photograph: iStock

The great vindictiveness of the virus is that it robs us of the rituals of grieving: no wakes, no big funeral Masses or secular celebrations. Photograph: iStock

My grandfather died of an infectious disease, tuberculosis, in 1932 when he was in his early 30s. My mother’s little sister Frances died in 1939 when she was three years old, from diphtheria, an acute bacterial infection. My little brother Colm died in the Coombe hospital in 1965 when a gastric infection swept through a neonatal unit. This is what happened in families before mass vaccination and medical breakthroughs made death from airborne viruses and bacteria rare.

The cruel capriciousness of infection receded to the margins of experience. The terror of germs was forgotten. But the dead were not. I never knew my grandfather or little Frances or baby Colm. But I knew the grief they left behind. My father was two when his father died and he had no memory of him. But once, when we were on the bus to Bray, we passed the old Crinken sanatorium. He shuddered involuntarily. An image from the deep past had come to him: he was walking up the driveway to that building holding his mother’s hand. His father died there, leaving five children.

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