My uncle was an important figure in my life from as far back as I can remember. When we were kids my brother and I were very close to our cousins, his sons. I have many fond memories of staying over at their house, where my uncle would entertain us with his captivating stories.
So I was concerned when in the midst of the pandemic, my family in the UK told me he had been hospitalised with shortness of breath. We were particularly anxious given his pre-existing lung condition, knowing how merciless COVID-19 can be for the vulnerable. Not long after, our worst fears were realised when he was diagnosed with the virus.
Until that point coronavirus had felt like a distant threat for me in the relative safety of Australia, with its low infection rates. I had been in good spirits, feeling grateful for the sense of purpose that came with working in healthcare during this challenging time. Much of that changed when my uncle was diagnosed, and the gravity of the situation hit home.
Until that point coronavirus had felt like a distant threat for me in the relative safety of Australia, with its low infection rates.
One of the many cruel tricks coronavirus plays is preventing us from seeing its casualties, so my family in the UK were unable to visit him. Like many immigrants to Australia with family overseas, I usually have to work out if I can return to be with relatives when they fall sick. On this occasion international travel was risky and largely suspended, so I did not even have the option.
Phone calls were the best we could do and he was in good spirits as ever despite the gut-wrenching circumstances. As his treatment progressed, I stayed in touch with the medical team to keep my relatives updated. During those telephone conversations I could feel the chaos on the wards, but he was recovering against the odds and they expected him to be discharged soon. I was glad I could finally give his son some good news.
Phone calls were the best we could do and he was in good spirits as ever despite the gut-wrenching circumstances.
Then sadly, he took a turn for the worse and all of a sudden, he was gone. The shock and pain of his passing were grave. Charismatic, kind and funny, he was a huge influence on me and my extended family and touched the lives of many more in our community.
The period of grieving that followed was complicated by the peculiarities of the pandemic. No opportunity to say goodbye. Only a few could attend the funeral in person while the rest of us watched via video-call. In our culture social gatherings usually take place for weeks after a death to share the burden of the grief. But we were deprived of that too.
We all deal with grief differently, but there are patterns. Kubler-Ross & Kessler described the 5 stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I witnessed these to varying degrees at different points in my relatives, as well as experiencing them myself.
We all deal with grief differently, but there are patterns.
Our ‘defence mechanisms’ are the unconscious methods we use to process negative emotions. Sublimation, or creativity, is one – an artist cousin of mine paid her respects with a work of art dedicated to my uncle’s memory, which helped her deal with the loss.
As a psychiatrist I tend towards altruism as a defence. So I found myself offering the advice below to my relatives and in doing so, helping myself through the turmoil.
Those who have lost someone to this vicious disease should find comfort where they can in the story. My uncle was a deeply religious man and passed away while he was praying. If he could have chosen how he would die, it would surely have been this. Many of us found solace in this detail.
There is no right way to grieve so the bereaved should avoid putting undue pressure on themselves. The five stages of grief are a rough guide to the emotional process, but it is not a linear trajectory. I advised relatives who were worrying or feeling guilty about their reaction not to add an unnecessary layer of discomfort.
Seeking support from others can be infinitely useful. Although we could not meet in person, my cousins and I had weekly video calls to comfort each other. Sharing stories about my uncle or chatting and laughing to forget for a moment. Professional help from bereavement counsellors, therapists or helplines is always an option too.
If the sadness is becoming too much to bear, re-framing your thoughts can change your perspective and provide relief.
If the sadness is becoming too much to bear, re-framing your thoughts can change your perspective and provide relief. One of my relatives was struggling with the idea that my uncle had suffered a lot. I suggested they try and focus on the life he lived and the fact he was always smiling and joking rather than his last days.
Asking yourself what the deceased would have wanted can be helpful too. Some of my family were placing unfair expectations on themselves, thinking they should be doing more or doing less. Reminding them that my uncle would not have wanted them to be so hard on themselves helped a little.
In his recent book, Kessler added a sixth stage to the grief process – finding meaning, which he felt was important for post-traumatic growth. My uncle lived a life of service. As a spiritual guide he showed many people, especially troubled young men, the path to a better life. If sharing our family’s experiences of losing him helps others, it may continue his legacy and help us find meaning in his death too.
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