COVID-19 has robbed us – not only on account of the lives lost, but it has also stolen our traditional symbolic end of life rituals, experiences and celebrations. During the first wave of the pandemic, the media was full of stories and imagery of the Black, Asian and Minoritised Ethnic health care workers who were dying disproportionately from the virus. This time around there is still ethnic disproportionality, but what we are hearing is of regular people from the Black and Asian community losing their lives to the virus. It seems as though everyone knows somebody who has succumbed to the virus, and in our Ubele family we have members who are now bereaved. During the first wave in April last year, Dame Jocelyn Barrow died at the age of 90. Due to COVID-19 restrictions the community were not able to mark her passing with the pomp and pageantry she deserved. She did not get the grand send off and public celebration of her life that someone of her societal standing merited. She was amongst many things the first Black Woman to be Governor of the BBC, and she was the Founder and Deputy Chair of the Broadcasting Standards Committee. COVID-19 meant no nine-nights communal expression of grief for Dame Barrow. There was no public gathering to give condolences to the family, to share fond memories, individual stories and anecdotes of her life. There was no loud or tuneless singing of hymns, gospel songs and calypsos, neither was there any raucous laughter, the playing of dominos and cards, no wafting of aromatic smells and the love, joy and delight that accompanies the communal eating and drinking that is the tradition of Caribbean bereavement. Instead, I had the heart-wrenching experience of my first virtual live streamed funeral – just me in solitude on my laptop in the living room watching what looked like CCTV camera footage of her service. There was not even another face visible on the zoom call to make public affirmations of her important relationship to the community.
“As I write this my eyes are now leaking and there is a gnawing in my stomach as I reminisce about my beloved friend who recently succumbed to the virus. Those of us to know and love him have not been able to come together to celebrate his life, to grieve communally, to hug and comfort each other, to offer a tissue to wipe away the tears, and share in an explosion of multisensory stimulation.”
You see, were it not for COVID-19, we would have gathered together listening to his favourite music, singing soca, reggae, and folksongs. There would have been animated banter, sharing humorous and heartfelt stories, reminiscing about his antics and escapades, discussing his sometimes controversial Facebook posts, watching old photos, and eating from a table laden with sumptuous food that delights and stimulates the senses – all representative of the cultures of the people who would have come together in his memory. COVID-19 has robbed us not only of those we love, but it has robbed us of our comforting, soothing healing symbolic rituals of mourning and acceptance. It has affected the way in which we come together to celebrate the life of our loved ones, of having companionship in the public acknowledging of bereavement, of the ability to be united in grief, and being able to hold and comfort each other to buffer the pain of loss. What that means is that our traditional rituals are being reframed and as we grieve, mourn and experience the sadness of the loss of lives, the sobering thought is that even though the process is not happening the way that we are used to, it is evolving and we will adapt. — Dr Yansie Rolston FRSA, The Ubele Initiative If you or anyone you know is struggling with grief, and loss please visit www.bamestream.org for free bereavement support.