art by ré ní fhloinn
It was one minute to 1am when the message from my dad came in through the family WhatsApp,
“Hi Guys. I don’t want to wake you but just to let you know that Granny Ann passed away about midnight at home very peacefully with all of us around”.
It was a beautifully warm night in April 2020. The London streets were strangely quiet as we were coming up to 1 month into the first lockdown. Reading that message, which had been expected for the previous few days, my mind immediately went to my family home in Dublin where my grandmother had lived her last moments. I could see her resting in the bed, which had been temporarily placed in the living room, small and warm, surrounded by my aunts and uncles. Although miles away in my flat in London, I could easily feel the love and comfort that would have been palpable in that room. Soft murmurs between family as they sit by the crackling fire, the squeeze of a hand between siblings to share grief, my mum in the background quietly looking after those being confronted with loss.
Of course, had my brothers and I been there, we could have shared our own grief with our family and felt theirs in return. But sitting in my flat there was no one to turn to who was feeling what I was feeling. No one who could share and connect with me over this grief. When faced with something as shockingly natural as death, your focus seems to shift to another plain, one where time slows down to an apparent stop and the material world is temporarily given access to the spiritual one. It’s a raw and enlightening experience that is fundamental to life. As I struggled to process the reality of my grandmother’s passing that night, feeling the absence of family to share it with, I felt an overwhelming need to not be inside. Quickly, in the middle of the night, I walked outside to stroll around a strangely quiet New Cross in London under an open sky that provided the space needed to process and breathe.
Loss of loved ones during lockdown is a truly surreal experience. A year later and I think my brothers and I are only just starting to process our loss. From the experience I learned that grief is a collective activity. Grieving with those who have lost what you have lost makes it shockingly real, and as a result begins the grieving (and healing) process. Grieving alone, in lockdown, prohibits this. There is no external confirmation of the loss. No space, be it an Irish wake or a funeral, where you can air your sadness and recognise it in the faces of others around you. My mum made sure to relay the events of that week to my brothers and I, knowing that experiencing those key
moments through her were fundamental to our ability to access and release our grief.
Whilst our dad accepted his own grief alongside his siblings, mum rehashed the events of that week almost immediately as they were happening. Where our family in Dublin were coming and going from the house to see my grandmother’s resting body and mourn or reminisce, my brothers and I were a part of these conversations through calls with our mum. After my dad and his siblings enjoyed a whisky in the early hours of the morning following their mothers passing, mum painted the picture for us so that we could imagine ourselves there. It’s those moments, surrounded by loved ones, immediately after death where you collectively grieve, moving through tearful sadness to joyful loving laughter.
One memory that she shared with me in such detail, so clearly that I could swear it was my own memory, transformed and evolved my relationship with death, and life as a result. Mum had been a nurse when she was younger and had spent some time working in a nursing home. There she learned the process of “laying out” the body of someone just passed. When my grandmother died in our home, she took her sisters-in-law into the room with her and guided them through this process. She described to me the loving way they gently washed the body with a warm cloth, softly dressing my grandmother in clean, beautiful clothes, and brushing her hair. I was moved by this image of the women in my family literally sitting with death, not fearful or avoidant, but accepting and calm. I was deeply saddened that I had missed that spiritual and connecting experience, shared in a tender silence with others like me. The distance between us at this time was yet another thing to grieve. But I was also remarkably grateful that the experience had been shared with me in such colourful detail, allowing me to have been there through my mum’s description.
These moments that followed my grandmother’s passing made comfortable room for the honest and open relationship with death that so many of us live without. Irish wakes famously don’t shy away from death. The body of the person who has passed is often laid out in the home, ready and waiting for visits from friends and family to say goodbye. Drinks are shared and conversations had around the body, as if they are a part of the mourning activities. And they are. The physical proximity to death and grief, allows for a welcoming of the life-death-life cycle. This is evident when you compare it to the gloomy closed-casket approach of many euro-centric funerals. Hiding the body, suppressing grief not only interrupts and prevents the grieving process, but it disregards the very thing that death celebrates and reflects: Life. There is no achieving a full appreciation for our fleeting and beautiful lives without an equal and genuine appreciation of death. One cannot exist without the other.