Grieving in the lockdown: 'I wish I could have sat with her at the end'

6:35 pm on 15 April 2020

By Sharon Stephenson

Opinion - Since The Awfulness began, all the things people do when a loved one dies - grieving together as a family and throwing their arms around each other - are denied them.

A coffin with a flower arrangement

Photo: 123rf

She died on a Monday, under a sky the colour of dirty wool.

It wasn't Covid-19 that got my friend's beloved grandmother, but cancer, the ugly disease that's no respecter of age, ethnicity or pandemics.

As the afternoon began to lose its light, my friend called.

"I wanted you to know she's gone," she said, of the woman who mostly raised her.

"Because of the level 4 lockdown, there won't be a funeral. I'm not in her bubble so I'm not even allowed to see her body."

The next day I drove 10 minutes out of my bubble, hoping I wouldn't be turned back, to deliver a chocolate cake to my friend. Because hugs in a baked form are still allowed.

We talked through a window, keeping our required distance, my friend crying in big, hiccupy breaths, me fighting the urge to embrace her and wishing I could do more than say repeatedly and pathetically, "I'm so sorry for your loss".

We talked about her grandmother, a woman who believed in stoicism, generosity and patience. A woman who was famous for her banana cake and garlicky roast chicken, who lived through poverty and grief and deserved an MBE for services to making do.

We talked about how she taught her children and grandchildren the importance of education, of learning languages and musical instruments. How she once lay across a Wellington motorway to protest against the Springbok tour, and was arrested for her efforts. How she gave everyone she met a belief in the value of kindness and a hope for a better world.

And how she was lucky to have escaped the current cataclysmic events, the tsunami of horror now flooding our world.

"I wish I could have seen her one last time, to say goodbye," says my friend. "I wish I could have sat with her at the end, to tell her how much she was loved."

Even crueller, my friend can't grieve with her family. "You know that thing people do when a loved one dies - they drink more than they need to and sleep less than they should, they come together to tell good, bad and embarrassing stories about their loved one, they laugh and they cry together? All those things that make a funeral or a tangi so beautiful are now denied us, thanks to Covid-19."

Two months ago, before The Awfulness began, my mother died. I was travelling though Japan on a work trip, admiring the view from a Tokyo skyscraper, when my sister called to say things were grim.

My mother had spent the last few years being dragged through the horrific swamp that is dementia. Her thoughts, often slow and sludgy, had pretty much ground to a halt. Her ability to string together a sentence wasn't far behind.

My sister reported Mum had been admitted to hospital with a bowel infection. It was like a game of dominoes, the start of a chain reaction that eventually killed her.

My parents retired to the Gold Coast 18 years ago, swapping rainy Lower Hutt for extended family and endless sunshine. But two years ago, increasing ill health forced them from their retirement unit into a space smaller than my kitchen where they aren't even allowed to boil a kettle.

Mum never adapted to her new home and her health went rapidly downhill. She became argumentative and angry, as dementia patients are liable to. She lied and hid things, then blamed the staff for taking them. On one memorable occasion, she reported seeing a snake slither though her tiny patch of lawn. They take those kinds of things seriously there, and within minutes the aged care facility was in lockdown, the reptile experts called in. They found nothing, of course, and Mum later admitted it was only a gecko she'd seen.

I'll spare you the details, but in the last few months of her life, Mum said and did things that upset me. It was the dementia talking but I regret that my last few conversations with her weren't more positive.

Still, we were lucky. Back then, before we entered a reality where flour is the new crack and people have more toilet rolls than they'll ever need, we were able to cross borders, gather in numbers greater than two and come together to throw our arms around each other.

On a warm February day, the kind that Queensland does so well, people sweated in black shirts and dresses to say goodbye to Mum. She would have been pleased to see those who swelled the church, from family and old and new friends to the staff who'd cared for her and the doctors who'd battled to save her life.

Most of all, I'm glad we got to say goodbye to Mum and to celebrate her life in a way that so many others currently can't.

*Sharon Stephenson has been rearranging words on a page for longer than she can remember. She has written for many New Zealand publications, including North & South, Kia Ora and NZ House & Garden.

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