Death in the Time of Corona
I was prepared for one of them to die.
Before I left the UK to go travelling, I made a list of family members I would come home for if they died. In a single week in October 2016, I lost not one, but two of the most influential men in my life: my granddads. One I was prepared for, but the other came as a brutal, cruel shock.
They are the reason I’m here in Sydney, thousands of miles from home, trying to embrace life to the fullest in Australia.
This past month, that list I made two years ago has become an even scarier reality. The COVID-19 virus has caused a global pandemic; countries have shut down, borders have closed and entire nations are under strict lockdown.
I chose to move to Australia two years ago. Now, I am on a bridging visa and genuinely can’t leave, or my visa request will become invalid. I spent $5000AUD on that visa. I can’t fly out to come back in, because the Australian border is now closed. Even if it wasn’t, flights are about $10,000AUD now.
There are hundreds of people just like me who are trying to lie low during this storm in countries that are not their own, hoping to last ’til the other side. But we are thousands of kilometres from our family, our friends and our support systems.
The UK government has advised that anyone old or with an underlying health issue needs to self isolate for 12 weeks. I have several family members on that critical list, either with cancer, or they’re over 70, or they’re asthmatic. These underlying health issues are what the UK government keeps blaming the fatalities on. Forced into self-isolation to protect themselves, they face months of loneliness.
Last week, my mum had COVID-19. Unofficially, at least. Thanks to Boris and his “we don’t need to test everyone” policy, the UK statistics are very much out of touch with what is actually going on in the population. Mum had every single symptom — and she’s asthmatic, so her case was made worse by her preexisting breathing problems. This past week has been really scary, but border shutdowns, flight cancellations and visa issues mean there is absolutely no chance that if something did happen to her, or another family member, I could fly home.
I have semi-been here before, with my grandads, whilst at university.
Granddad Tony was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when I was 20. Countless hospital appointments followed: back and forth check-ups with various different doctors all giving their own advice and expertise. I watched it all unfold miles away from a screen — I was at university in Scotland, and usually got my updates from my mum via a WhatsApp message.
My parents always encouraged independence — something I thank them for, and I wouldn’t be living where I am today if they hadn’t. But this means that my relationship with them is the perfect demonstration of the modern family: separated by thousands of air miles, where physical love and intimacy is replaced with a double blue tick,
My grandad’s final summer, I stayed at home. I knew our time was limited. I visited as often as I could, and always came round for a cup of tea and a chat — he liked his tea with one sugar stirred to the right.
His final weekend, I came back, and it was a struggle. The man I saw as my second dad was not quite the same anymore, and I felt like university had robbed me of my chance to properly say goodbye. He still took the absolute piss out of my laugh though, and repeatedly did pig snorts every time I made a joke, to anticipate the noise I make when I giggle.
It was his passing that I was prepared for.
When mum called, I was on the way to a history seminar. I was calm and explained to my tutor what happened — a quick, “Hi, sorry, my Granddad just passed from cancer, it is okay if I don’t come to class today? Thanks.” — before going to my friend’s house to tea and cry.
I was numb. My heart physically hurt, an ache deep in my chest that wouldn’t go away. Tears didn’t really fall, because plenty had fallen before he went.
A few days later, my dad called. He will only normally ring when it’s an emergency — he prefers to text. I never imagined that a call at 7am that Tuesday would open with him crying down the phone. The only other two times I can remember him crying were about his parents.
Grandad Ted’s death hit me hard. It was a shock death, the second relative in six days. I have never experienced pain like it, and I hope to fuck I don’t have to again, at least for a long time.
I was crying for myself, I was crying for my grandfathers and I was crying for my parents. But I couldn’t cry with my family, because of my degree and its location, seven hours from home. This was my final year, and I couldn’t skip a class. A tutor actually tried to give me a 2:2 (the lowest pass grade in a UK university) for my participation whilst I was dealing with all of this — a mistake he quickly corrected thanks to one very fiery email from me.
I didn’t go home until the funerals; I arranged my flights around my classes. Days passed where I didn’t get out of bed. I slept the pain away; days turned into nights, and nights into days. I went to my classes: turned up, did the work, got out.
I lost a lot of friends that semester. Ones who expected me to bounce back. Ones who gave me until the funerals to be sad, not realising that after the funeral is actually the hardest part. Ones who didn’t realise grief isn’t something that leaves immediately, but dances around you, ready to strike when you are least expecting it. It comes in waves that knock the breath out of you. You feel like you’re drowning.
Eventually, slowly, I got back to my feet.
Death happens, and it’s shit. But it is going to happen regardless of whether you’re there to hold your loved ones’ hands, or if you’re far away experiencing something new.
This is especially important now. Millions of people around the world are stranded away from their families without either the choice nor the opportunity to get home if something bad happens. So, listen to the doctors, the medical specialists, the scientists. Stay inside: if not for you, for someone you love. It’s going to be boring as hell, but hopefully we see it through and make it out the other side.
Oh, and in case you were wondering: my mum is recovering and is now able to FaceTime her incredibly needy daughter at least once every two days.
Cover by Gemma Evans