As 13 million Brits tuned in to Prince Philip’s funeral at the weekend, I found myself having to turn the TV off. Not because I didn’t feel the utmost sympathy for the royal family and their loss, but because of the painful memories it brought back of not being able to attend my own father’s funeral last year. It was just too much to relive.
Mine is a story shared by many others in the pandemic. People were denied the chance to attend a funeral, instead forced to join remotely, or simply weren’t able to give the send-off to a loved one they so deserved. No wakes, no singing, no contact, a limit on numbers. The gut-wrenching images of the Queen sitting alone at the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral on Saturday brought back the sheer bleakness and loneliness of saying farewell during Covid.
My dad died suddenly a year to the day of Prince Philip. I was sitting down to a day of WFH on the morning of April 9, 2020 when I got the call that no one wants to receive, and always catches you off guard. I felt suffocated, like I was going to vomit, in shock. It was an outrageously sunny day in the throes of the first UK lockdown, when restrictions meant that even sitting down outside was forbidden. So I walked. I walked and walked, placing one foot in front of the other in order to be able to breathe.
Only one person was allowed to attend dad’s cremation in New Zealand, where he is from and was living at the time. Restrictions were extremely tight, and his farewell for friends and family took place months later, but I was still unable to attend because of travel restrictions. So at home in my flat, with my mum and partner Jonny by my side, I set my alarm for 3.30am to join the memorial via Facebook Live. My eulogy for dad which I had pre-recorded played to family and friends. The moving sound of bagpipes echoing through my tinny laptop speakers will always stay with me - I still can’t hear them now without welling up. I longed to be at the wake that went on long into the early hours in celebration of my dad who loved a good knees up. All of the outrageous stories, the many drinks toasted to his life - it was unbearable to miss out on.
Covid is cruel, for every life it has taken and for the grieving processes it’s interrupted, whether or not the deaths were caused by the virus itself. Births, deaths and unions are the biggest milestones we go through as human beings - there’s a reason why all cultures and religions have very specific mourning rituals.
“Funeral and mourning rituals help us recognise that a death has taken place and carrying out these acts can bring a feeling of closeness to the person who has died,” says grief counsellor and funeral director Lianna Champ. “They remind us that something fundamental has changed in our lives and changes need to be marked so we can begin to process how we feel.
“Rituals connect us with our community, however large or small, and provide us with the hope, love and support others have to offer. They also give a sense of being a part of something bigger than us and the realisation that death is very much a part of life,” Champ continues.
I’m not religious, but yearned for the presence of those grieving with me, the shared salty tears and firm hugs, the togetherness that is always a basic human need, but especially in times of grief. Not having that was both disorientating and isolating. The Queen was able to attend a small funeral for her loved one, but those photos of her in a mask, alone, capture how brutal the mourning process has been for people in the pandemic.
It’s hard not to remain caught up in the unfairness and sadness of being robbed of the goodbye I wanted (and closure I still need), but it doesn’t mean I can’t still mark it in my own way, once allowed. Champ says many families she’s cared for during this time are finding comfort in planning gatherings and activities when the restrictions lift. “From a picnic on a favourite walk to a huge fundraising event with live music. This time spent planning, memorialising and talking about the person who has died is almost a ritual in itself and helps us to move forward with our loved ones very much a part of us.”
Grieving in lockdown has been overwhelming without let-up. But as things start to open up again, I too have started planning how I’ll be marking my dad’s passing. I’m hoping to have a tree planting ceremony in his memory, ahead of travelling to New Zealand to scatter his ashes. But before that, come June 21, I’ll be arranging a royal knees up with a group of my closest friends and dancing the night away in memory of my dad, Hamish, who loved to party.