A lockdown of sorrows

Angela Haggerty’s lockdown was unbearably tragic. She argues we need a day of national remembrance to remember all those we lost during the pandemic.

I thought many times about what my father’s funeral would be like when I was growing up.

When I was a child and couldn’t sleep, sometimes the prospect of my parents dying would pop into my head from nowhere. I wondered what age I might be when that happened. I wondered how they might die.

I imagined how I would feel and what life would be like. And I thought about their funerals, and how we would all say goodbye.

While this all may sound exceptionally morbid, I don’t think it’s at all unusual. We understand from a young age that people don’t get older forever. At some point they will die. If our parents are older than us, then it stands to reason that they’ll die before we do. And when such a terrifying prospect begins to enter our minds, the process of preparation begins.

In January 2020 the prospect of my father’s funeral became real. I was 34 and eight months pregnant with his first grandchild. In late 2019 he had become quite unwell. He was 79 and my family and I all hoped that it was just a reflection of his age.

It seemed like the right time to bring him to live with me and have him see out the rest of his years with his grandson.

Our hearts were shattered that January when we were delivered the news that he was terminally ill with a rare blood cancer which was quickly progressing to an aggressive form of leukaemia.

He was given a life expectancy of 6-12 months.

My brothers and I, along with family and friends, scrambled to make plans. He would stay at home with his grandson for as long as possible, and after that we had a place for him at a lovely hospice where all the family could gather, day and night, to be with him.

Then, we would have a funeral, and what a funeral it would be! My father, Hughie, was a character. He had a terrific sense of humour and he was popular with anyone he met. He was active in his local church in Rothesay as a passkeeper and he was equally as active in his local Celtic pub as a devoted fan of the Bhoys. He’d been a postman for many years before he retired. He’d also been a taxi driver and labourer. He, along with my mother – who passed away 10 years before he did – raised four children.

To me, he was a gentle giant and my best friend. We were so close.

A birth

In late February 2020, I gave birth to my son, Francis. He and his papa became pals immediately. While the family knew what was on the horizon with my dad’s health, he didn’t. His condition had impacted his mind so severely that he had forgotten his diagnosis. We chose not to keep reminding him, and instead let him have joy with his grandchild.

It was a beautiful thing to see.

And then it happened. Covid-19 swept the UK, and it swept away all our plans with it. My father was placed on the shielding list because of his condition, which meant we were confined to the house and could have no visitors under any circumstances. My two eldest brothers would never see him again before he died.

Dad died six months after his diagnosis, in June 2020. He died in a hospital instead of a hospice, and rather than having all of his family around him only my brother was allowed to be there. On the day of his funeral we were permitted 20 people in the church, but fewer at the graveside.

I couldn’t sit with my brothers. We weren’t allowed to have a wake. We never got to give my father the good- bye he deserved, and I cried my tears into a face mask. I know I’m not the only one.

The Covid-19 pandemic robbed thousands upon thousands of people the chance to say their goodbyes and to mark the passing of people who had been at the hearts of families and communities.

When we prepare for death, be it for our- selves or our loved ones, we rely on the comfort of rituals. We expect them to be there. I remember how common it was before the pandemic for people to speak about how much they disliked funerals.

After the pandemic, it may be a while before those words leave anyone’s lips so readily. It made many of us realise just how important they are, and how it stunts the emotional process of grief when we can’t have them.

In the months I was shielding my father, my son Francis only saw his own father, Tommy, twice.

He was a key worker and it wasn’t safe for him to be around us. It was only after my father’s passing that Francis and his dad were finally able to be a normal father and son. And so it felt immensely cruel when just a few months later, in October 2020, Tommy passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. In the space of only eight months I’d had a baby, lost my father and then lost Tommy. The shock was indescribable. It still is.

Another death

Again, Covid robbed us of the chance to say a proper goodbye and to begin the process of grieving. We were headed to- wards another lockdown and my son and I spent Christmas, New Year, my birthday and his first birthday alone. I couldn’t grieve because I had a baby who needed me. The world kept spinning and our bereavement became lost in a sea of many.

I believe that the way we lost our loved ones has left a traumatic grief in the bereaved, and it needs to be acknowledged. The people we lost need to be acknowledged, but we can’t go back in time.

That’s why I’ve reached the view that we need a national day of mourning. An active day of mourning. I don’t mean a minute’s silence across the nation and sombre pictures of our political leaders laying wreaths, I’m talking about family and community events to mark and celebrate the lives of those we lost; to tell stories, to laugh, to cry, and to say those goodbyes we felt we never got to say.

At the time of our losses my family and our friends said we would have a proper wake when it was safe but given the sheer scale of what we’ve all gone through in this pandemic and the passage of time, the moment has passed. Now, the prospect of inviting people to a wake so long after a person has died seems odd.

But it wouldn’t feel that way if it was a national event. It would give us all a kind of permission to throw ourselves into it, and finally begin to fill a gap in the process of grief that has thus far been replaced by nothing other than an awful, painful memory.

The pandemic is ongoing and there will be no formal end date to it, it will likely fizzle away eventually as it becomes endemic. It’s even more reason for us to create some- thing that we can rally around as a way of acknowledging all we’ve been through.

Our spirits need to be able to heal, and it is going to require a collective effort. My father and Tommy still deserve their big send off. The pain of saying farewell to our loved ones in this life reflects the love and joy they brought to the world. It’s time we were able to say goodbye. All of us.

You can read a longer version of this article in edition 8 of the Scottish Catholic magazine. You can get a copy by subscribing here.

Caption – Hughie Haggerty with this grandson Francis.

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