Louise O'Neill: Loss has been made even more difficult now

Louise O'Neill: Loss has been made even more difficult now

My granduncle Donie died this week. He was my grandmother’s younger brother, a kind, gentle man who had been unwell for quite some time. 

I was sitting in the living room with my mother when the phone rang. We both took a deep breath, knowing immediately what was coming. 

When I heard the news, I remembered when my sister and I were children and we would go ‘visiting’ with my granny, going to her siblings’ homes for tea and cake and scones. 

Playing card games in one, raiding their collection of old Enid Blyton books, being told terrifying ghost tales in another.

In my granduncle’s house, I used to stand on their kitchen table and perform dance routines, jazz hands and a pause for applause, and they would laugh rather than tell me to get the hell off their pristine furniture, like I deserved. 

As I said, they were kind people.

His death was unrelated to the coronavirus but still, the numbers at the mass were limited to immediate family only — a difficult task for many Irish families which are traditionally larger than most European countries. 

My mother and I stood outside the church gates and we waited for the hearse to pass, the short trail of cars behind it with only one or two people in them.

After the family walked slowly into the church, we blessed ourselves and we left. 

We were both quiet in the car until she said to me, “that was utterly surreal, wasn’t it?” I had to agree. I felt so sorry for his wife, Cáit, and his sons. 

It’s never the right time to lose someone you love but that loss has been made even more difficult now.

We are a nation that knows how to mourn; we have rituals, customs, a well-beaten path to follow that will help us grieve. 

What I saw on Monday — this quiet, quick burial, standing six feet apart from those whom you want to hug, to hold close, to comfort — this isn’t our way. 

We have heard such sad stories over the last few weeks, of undertakers arriving in hazmat suits, of family members living in far-flung countries unable to get home to bury their dead, many robbed of the chance to shoulder the coffin because of social distancing. 

Whenever I saw funerals in Hollywood films, I would always wonder at how small they were, a cluster of people around a headstone.

I would picture instead what I had always known; the long queues outside a funeral home, a row of men and women in black clothes shaking hands over and over again: “I’m sorry for your loss,” we muttered to them. “I’m so sorry.” 

I had been shocked when friends in New York told me they’d never seen a dead body, thinking of the wakes I had attended since I was a child, touching cold fingers interlaced with rosary beads, pale faces haloed in rippling white silk, their best suit or dress on for this, their last journey.

Sitting beside the coffin in someone’s good sitting room or parlour, a cup of milky tea in my hands, while the adults drank whiskey and sang and told stories about the dead.

I tried to explain this to my American friends, to explain that death was just a part of our culture and we had accepted it as such, but I could see they thought me strange because of it. 

No matter what I said about Ireland being a modern, progressive country, not the land of The Quiet Man they assumed it was, a land of redhaired girls with hot tempers and pony and carts and wily fairies looking for mischief, our preoccupation with death still struck them as peculiar. 

They could not seem to see the beauty in it, in being given some time to accept that this person was gone and would not be coming back.

We have gathered together so many times in the past so that the immediate family would not feel alone in their sorrow, that we as a community could silently promise that their loss was ours too. 

This has been our normal for such a long time, the rites so deeply embedded into our cultural psyche, it feels jarring not be able to grieve in the old ways. 

How different an experience this death would have been if it had occurred only two months ago, I thought, and any of us with elderly or infirm relatives cannot help but hold our breaths, hoping they will stay with us until all of this is over.

It’s difficult to accept that we will have to become used to this new normal until a vaccine is found.

Gatherings will remain small in order to flatten the curve of this pandemic and of course, we appreciate that we must play our part to protect the most vulnerable in our society and to ensure our health system isn’t overwhelmed. 

The measures that are being taken are vital and necessary, we know this. 

But that doesn’t make it any less challenging for those who have been left behind.

Louise Says

Watch: Never Have I Ever. Mindy Kaling wrote this new series for Netflix, which is a coming of age story about a teenage Indian-American girl who has just lost her father.

It’s hysterically funny and touching and I binged the entire thing in one day.

Please watch it.

Play: I’ve bought a number of boardgames recently (#QuarantineLife) and 30 Seconds has proven to be a great hit.

One player must guess a word from the other player’s explanation and you must get as many right answers in thirty seconds as possible.

We bought the Irish edition.

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