How Coronavirus Interrupted My Grieving Process

Photographed by Anna Jay
My mum died in May last year from a rare cancer: mucosal melanoma. The first anniversary of her death loomed like a storm cloud. My father, my brother and I were all dreading it. 
The last year has been one of the longest and shortest of my life. The death of a parent is never not difficult to process. Grief is an unusual beast at the best of times. There are no five steps, there’s no timeline and there’s no blueprint for how you personally will experience the loss of someone so intrinsic to your life that you’re not sure how to exist without them.
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We were doing it, though. We were getting through it: grieving and immersing ourselves in the process of looking at our grief, talking about it, thinking about it. 
Since my mum died I have been going over to my parents' house for an evening each week to check in with my dad and talk about her.
Not only was it a chance to reminisce but also really the only time both of us would talk through our emotions and cry. It was so important to have that regular release, to bring her back to life for one night a week and be surrounded by her presence in our family home.
After lockdown that all changed. The dull constant of grief over the last year was replaced with a steady, rising panic. Instead of missing my mum I was worrying about my dad and, crucially, because of his age and the government directives, not seeing him at all. Our weekly meet-ups ceased.
To mark the first anniversary of my mum’s death, we would have all visited the cemetery and enjoyed a family get-together so that my father could feel supported by the love of his children. But of course lockdown scuppered these plans.

Lockdown changed everything. The dull constant of grief of the last year was replaced with a steady, rising panic. Instead of missing my mum I was worrying about my dad. And I couldn't see him.

Where previously I’d had my daily commute to listen to Cariad Lloyd’s beyond excellent podcast Griefcast and hear other people’s experiences of grief, on 23rd March, like the rest of the country, I was ordered to stay at home. 
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Suddenly there wasn’t much space left to grieve. My time was suddenly devoted to trying to hold down my job and sharing the new challenge of home-schooling my 6-year-old daughter with my husband. 
All those books about grief and death that I’d been reading at bedtime were now shoved under the bed, replaced by the panicked swiping of a phone screen, trying to find some hope between the headlines of global death rates, the worst recession in history and no end in sight.
At the weekends I used to go running and have imaginary conversations with my mum but now I was focused on keeping two metres apart from other people and holding my breath to avoid inhaling droplets from their slipstream. It felt impossible to continue to grieve now that we had all been plunged into crisis mode. 
I had to look at the terror in front of me, rather than address the trauma I’d just been through. It started to feel self-indulgent to be grieving my mother, who died peacefully after a long illness with her family by her side, when the brutality of COVID was denying people the chance to say a final goodbye or even attend their loved ones’ funerals. 
Suddenly my position seemed hugely privileged. I did have a chance to say goodbye to my mum and my family all had a safe place to isolate. As well as anxiety, guilt seemed to be winning over grief.
But by far the biggest loss of my grief process during coronavirus has been the weekly sessions with my dad. 
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Not seeing my dad or my brother (who lives 160 miles away) these past eight weeks has been the hardest blow. Video calls just aren’t the same. We don’t want to watch each other cry through laptop screens and not be able to give each other a hug, so we just don’t go there too deeply. 

Grief feels like a noxious gas, silently permeating every facet of my being. It's got to go somewhere and if you don't regularly release the pressure it will start to leak out.

Some people have said: "Isn’t that good that you’re not thinking about grief all the time, having a break from it?" But I don’t think so. 
For me, grief feels like a noxious gas, silently permeating every facet of my being. It’s got to go somewhere and if you don’t regularly release the pressure it will start to leak out in misdirected moods, physical illness or depression.
That’s why all these small rituals of regular release are so important. Grief needs to find a space to live in your life. I think you do need to build it into your morning commute, your nightly read and your weekly meet-up. You need to learn to embrace it, not run away from it. Yes, it’s painful to look at but, in the long term, it could be more painful to look away.
I think that’s why I’ve been forgetting that my mum is dead, more than I have at any other time in the past year. So many times in the last eight weeks I’ve been just about to call her and talk about how surreal this all is when the devastating reality slaps me round the face again.
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Is it because I need her reassurance now more than ever, when there is such a childlike anxiety in the world? Or am I so preoccupied with dealing with the daily anxiety and stress that my brain on some level has simply forgotten? Maybe we just can’t deal with two traumas at the same time.
I don’t know. All I know is that grief felt like a process that I was working through, then coronavirus came along and snapped my grief manual shut. Now, after eight weeks of stasis, I feel the need to prise it open. I want to take some time to grieve again. 
I never thought I’d say this but in some ways I miss grief. I can only now appreciate what it was up to and I think it was probably just trying to help. 
So pandemic or no pandemic, as the first anniversary of my mum’s death approaches, I have decided to welcome back my grief with open arms.
I will go to the cemetery and see my mum’s name on the headstone. I will leave her flowers and tell her how I’m doing and how odd the world has been since she left it. I will video call my brother from the cemetery and perhaps even venture a brief, masked hug with my dad to show that even in the hardest circumstances, grief must find a way.
If you are struggling with the death of a parent or loved one, support is available. Visit Cruse Bereavement Care or telephone 0808 808 1677.
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