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My Story: Grief in lockdown

Michelle's father, Tinus, and sister, Jackie, at a family get-together

My Story: Grief in lockdown

Losing two loved ones on the other side of the world during lockdown meant saying goodbye without the traditional rituals or the opportunity to spend time with family and reminisce.

My Story: Grief in lockdown

For me, grief starts with a phone call. The words uttered by the unfortunate bearer of bad news will be etched on my memory for life. It’s a tremendous responsibility for the messenger. Sharing those few words that irrevocably will change a life forever.

Of course, 2020 has altered the path of grief. The grieving process, the critical part of obtaining closure and making some sense of the tragedy that will forever shape our lives, has had to adapt and I’ve had no choice but to accept it.

After losing both my sister and my father in 2020, getting the dreaded phone calls about their passing and saying goodbye via my laptop screen using Zoom, my life and my mindset have been forever changed.

My husband, children and I arrived in Wellington in August 2019 from Pretoria in South Africa. We settled in easily other than dealing with what it means to immigrate and have no family nearby. But the expectation was that if we needed to go back home, we would get on a plane and go.

Of course, COVID-19 put an end to that plan. We moved to New Zealand for our two boys and their future. We knew no-one when we arrived, but everyone was so friendly that it didn’t take long for everyone to settle. When we went into lockdown in April, it was fine as it was well organised and you could still get outside for some fresh air.

In South Africa, the lockdown was stricter and you weren’t allowed to leave your property, even to go for a walk. My sister, who was 11 years younger than me, was in the process of getting a divorce, and in lockdown on her own in South Africa. She found it really difficult. On May 6, my brother called me to say she had died.

My father only lives 2km from my sister but a police permit had to be obtained for the minister to be able to inform my father of the news of her death in person. Then, my father couldn’t do anything or see anyone as they weren’t allowed to travel outside the home, so it was difficult for everyone to get any closure.

Michelle (centre) with her brother Martin, and sister, Jackie<e/m>

I lost my mum when I was 21, and the grieving process was so different. You get the news, you take time off work to grieve with family and organise the funeral. You spend time with people reminiscing and talking about your feelings.

But COVID-19 changed all that. Now, we have to say goodbye in ways never known to mankind before. Now you can’t be with your loved ones in their final days, or follow the same rituals, or travel and spend time with your family to reminisce. My boss said to take as much time as I needed, but there was nothing I could do. Not being with my father and brother was extraordinarily tough. I felt like I was letting them down. I felt guilty, like I wasn’t playing my part.

Adding to the hurt

My father was young, he would have turned 63 in November. He took my sister’s death very hard. My mum had died 17 years earlier and he never really dealt with her passing. My sister’s death compounded that grief, making him very sad and lonely.

To help him, my brother bought a beautiful property in a game park in September with the intention that my father could retire there. The place is spectacular; it has a big verandah where you can watch the wild antelope, zebra and kudu stroll past.

My father had been there for about three weeks when he collapsed. He was diagnosed with an imbalance of electrolytes, which can usually be treated quite easily with a drip, but two days later I received another phone call from my brother on October 22, saying my father had died.

Again, because of lockdown, the hospitals weren’t allowing any visitors so my brother couldn’t go to the hospital and sit by his bedside or talk to the doctors and check in with how he was doing. My father’s death opened a lot of hurt because the wounds were already so raw due to my sister’s death. Having lost two loved ones in the space of six months and being on a different continent and in a different time zone was monumentally challenging.

I felt totally useless, and my bereavement leave mostly consisted of me staring blankly at the television screen. I wrote letters to my father and sister, which were read at their services. The process of writing these was intense, fraught with emotion, but immensely powerful in helping me summarise all the positives and saying goodbye.

In days immediately following the losses, my heart was sore. It was the most succinct way to explain what I was feeling. It felt like someone had stuck their hand into my chest and was squeezing my heart: not a stabbing pain, but an overwhelming tension that was constantly there.

As the days passed, I either got used to this constant feeling, or perhaps it faded in my pursuit to focus on other, positive things. I didn’t go looking for something to do on purpose, but two days after my sister’s death, I had to get out of the house and needed some alone time. I did a hike near my home called Colonial Knob. I walked, grunting and sweating my way to the top, listening to music, crying, having angry discussions with God, having angry imaginary discussions with my sister and the people I felt had caused the circumstances leading to her death.

After about 40 minutes, you step into farmlands with sheep, cattle and at the top, you catch a first glimpse of the Tasman Sea and smaller islands up close to the mainland. It takes my breath away, every single time. It is usually quite windy up there, but on that particular day, it was calm, with very few people around. At that moment, I realised that I will be okay, that my sister is okay, that the waves will continue to crash onto the shore, that the sun will continue to rise, and that my life will eventually be restored to its usual rhythm.

Michelle with her husband, Joe, and kids, on their first ski trip to Whakapapa<e/m>

When my father died, I repeated the walk. It has now become my ‘broken heart hill’, and just as the first time, when I got to the top and spotted the sea, I found my moment of peace. And then, a month or so later, I was happily watching Frozen 2 with my son, Joshua, one evening. There’s a scene towards the end where Princess Anna thinks her sister has died, but instead Princess Elsa comes hurtling towards the town on her magical water horse after successfully saving their village. The two sisters embrace, relieved at their positive fate and the movie has a happy ending.

I suddenly broke down in an ugly, soul-crushing cry. ‘Why could my sister not also come back?’ I wanted a happy Disney ending as well. My son was lying next to me and shocked at how I had gone from happy to terribly sad in an instant and, as I lay there sobbing, he comforted me. He is only 12, but because we’ve been honest about our feelings, and given each other explicit permission to be sad, he understood.

My family first

For 17 years we had watched how my father was unable to deal with the grief of losing my mother, and how that impacted everyone around him. I’m very honest with my children about how I’m feeling, but I’m also focused on the things that give us joy in life.

I’ve learnt how important it is to identify the things that instantaneously lift my spirit. Out of character and totally contrary to tradition, I put up the Christmas tree in mid-November. The fairy lights, the corny little elves and Santa statues gave me the utmost joy.

We also do things like going to the beach midweek, not just on weekends. And drinking good wine when we feel like it, not just on special occasions. Now, my focus is on myself and my family– identifying the things that are in my power to control and letting go of the things that I can’t. I could not predictor prevent my loved ones’ deaths, and life carries on. Instead, I actively choose to focus on the wellbeing of my immediate family and protect this as fiercely as I can.

At this very moment, my motto is ‘my family first’. This includes creating opportunities to spend quality time together, being acutely aware of my children’s, partner’s and brother’s emotions, and how they are progressing through their individual grief cycles.

On the first morning my son was returning to school following my father’s death, he asked me whether he was allowed to share his secret. “What secret, my boy?” I asked. “You know, about Grandpa,” he answered. For some reason, we had given him the impression that he had to carry this weight all on his own. He was so relieved when I encouraged him to share it with his friends and teacher, and he did so at their regular Monday ‘circle time’.

As painful as it may be, I realised how important it was to talk to people. In fact, I found it more difficult when I returned to work after this life-altering experience and some people didn’t know. As I talked to people and explained what had happened, I could feel the veil of darkness lift each time I shared my story.

COVID-19 is still rampant in many parts of the world as I write this. If you are faced with losing or farewelling a loved one during these unprecedented times, all I can say is ‘Take a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other rand keep calm. You will be okay.’

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