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In the Wake of a Pandemic, I Had to Mourn My Father’s Death in an Unprecedented Way

Well+Good logo Well+Good 8/4/2020 Jamie Betesh Carter
a man and a woman looking at the camera: grief during a pandemic © Photo: Getty Images grief during a pandemic

On March 15th, one week before New York went on pause due to COVID-19, my father died after fearlessly fighting cancer for over four years. Although my family and I knew the end was near, we didn’t expect it to coincide with a pandemic.

The day after the funeral in New York City on March 16th, my husband, daughter, and I packed our bags to stay with my mother in my childhood home in Brooklyn for a week. One week turned into four months, though, as we wanted to quarantine together with my mother, and needed more space. The global pandemic meant I never got to mourn the way I thought I would. Instead of taking long walks to process my father’s death, I was cooking two meals a day for our quarantine team. I wanted so desperately to go to a yoga class, and let it all out. I wanted to see friends, drink wine, and cry. But no. COVID, social injustice, and fear of the virus were what I was focused on.

The global pandemic meant I never got to mourn the way I thought I would. Instead of taking long walks to process my father’s death, I was cooking two meals a day for our quarantine team.

I realized I didn’t even know who I was if I wasn’t my dad’s cancer fighter. I wanted to make sense of my father’s death. Instead, I pushed it so far back that it would surface in tears. Not the type you could hide behind your sunglasses. But big, soak-your-shirt-wet, crying-fit-in-the-middle-of-taking-a-shower tears. Not only was I missing my father, but I was mourning a sense of normalcy as well. I was so focused on my new COVID-related responsibilities, I had no time or space to focus on myself. I had to grieve alone, without the tools I was used to, but I couldn’t be alone. We were stuck at home (which was also our new office, restaurant, coffee shop, and gym), all together, trying to figure out how to grieve in our own ways. It became clear that life wasn’t going back to “normal,” so I had to figure out how to grieve during these unprecedented times.

Why is it our tendency to want to grieve together? “Grief has always been a communal act,” says Carla Fernandez, founder of  The Dinner Party, a platform for grieving 20- and 30-somethings. “We eat, share stories, and stand together at grave sites. While many of us have lost the sense of ritual that has accompanied grief through cultural or faith traditions, even just being with our people can be medicine. And then enters COVID.”

I thought that if I couldn’t sit shiva, ride out my feelings at SoulCycle, or flutter my lips in a yoga class, I couldn’t properly grieve. Turns out I was wrong. “According to a research study conducted at Harvard Business School about grief rituals, it ends up that paradoxically some of our most potent grief rituals are those we do alone. We think of being at large memorials, but the rituals researchers found most impactful were private and not particularly sanctimonious, but still personally meaningful,” says Fernandez. “The invitation of this time is how do we create moments for ourselves where we can feel those feelings, and honor what we are craving?”

When I shifted my mindset to this new way of mourning, I realized I’d been mourning all along. It just looked different. I was happy to be safe and healthy, with my family, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of my father every second of the day living amongst his things. Casper Ter Kuile, author of The Power of Ritual, says, “While myths cannot be designed from scratch, rituals and other grieving practices definitely can. Consider setting aside a regular time and place to just sit with memories and photos. Having a place to go to in the home to 'be' with them is helpful when we can't be outside." When I began to think of my childhood home as a memorial space, I started to appreciate it instead of feeling overwhelmed. I felt excited each day when I’d rediscover my father’s stuff, setting some aside as keepsakes for my daughter.

For me, movement has always helped ease any stress or emotional pain I’m experiencing. “Our bodies and minds are not separate, so physical movement can unlock things in us that thinking alone cannot,” says Ter Kuile. I craved physical activity more than ever. While long walks alone weren’t feasible, I popped my daughter in her seat on my bike, went for a short ride, and immediately felt a sense of relief. Giving myself space, outside the home allowed me to shift my thoughts from grief to gratitude. I’d think about the lessons my father taught me, and began a mental list of those I want to pass on to my daughter. I realized that had it not been for my dad, I wouldn’t know olive oil can be used to tune up your rusty bike when you’re out of WD40.

While all of the cooking during quarantine had a tendency to become repetitive and mundane, I used it as an opportunity to create a new form of therapy. “Try building a ritual that reminds you of your loved one,” says Ter Kuile. “Then, focus on paying attention while practicing the ritual.” When I switched my focus, cooking became cathartic and a way for me to remind myself of my dad's blessings in the kitchen. I rummaged through his spice racks, and tried to recreate his hummus. It became something I looked forward to, as a way to memorialize my father. My husband, mother, and I would then have dinner together every night, which allowed us to not only realize, but live what’s important.

And finally, when COVID-19 began to ease up in New York City, I found solace in my alone time. The beach was my happy place with my father. Over three months after my father died, I spontaneously drove myself to Rockaway Beach in Queens, NY, pulled out a fleece blanket I found in the trunk of my car, and sat by myself for the first time. I popped in my headphones, listened to Mumford and Sons, and let the tears pour. It was just what I needed, and had been craving for months. Being alone, feeling a snippet of normalcy allowed me to break down to build back up.I realize life won’t always be like this, but I’ll take my new mourning rituals with me when life moves on to our new normal. “And remember,” Fernandez says, “Grief isn't one season. It weaves its way through our entire life. We will be able to mourn together again."


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