Apr 30 2020. view 629
Dealing with death is one of the hardest things we go through in life. It is the norm to be with your family as you hold funerals of loved ones. Barely five months ago I had to hold my mother’s funeral in London and I was fortunate to enjoy the privilege of being surrounded by friends and family who comforted me and supported me during that harrowing time. Fast forward to five months later and the world is standing in unison, staring in the face of a deadly virus with no known cure in sight. While the world as we know it has stopped to an extent, death continues leaving misery, chaos, and mayhem in its wake especially during this time. During the last 5 weeks of lockdown, some of the most harrowing stories I have heard are from those living abroad who lost family members and were unable to say their final goodbyes due to Sri Lanka closing her borders. With special orders in place on how to conduct funerals during COVID-19, many held funerals with less than 10 people present. In many cases funerals were held within 12 hours and police were present at the funeral to ensure social distancing was maintained and numbers of attendees were kept to a maximum of 10. For some, the death of their loved ones was unexpected while for others their worst nightmare came true when they received the dreaded call that their ailing family member had passed away.
Lekha (name changed on request) whose father was diagnosed with a terminal illness was one of the few who was able to spend time with her father in March. Lekha left Sri Lanka just three days before the lockdown came into place. “I didn’t expect it to happen during the lockdown, as he was always a fighter and kept going. The fact that he might die during lockdown did cross my mind but I didn’t think it would happen so soon and wasn’t prepared for it to happen during lockdown” she says. When Lekha last saw her dad in person she told him to be strong and said that she will come again soon to see him, little realizing that this would be the last time she would ever see him. Once she was told that her dad had only a few days left Lekha was left with no other option but to rely on technology to spend precious time with him. She says “ I had multiple video calls with him, with the last one being the night before he passed away. I was able to tell him to go in peace. As a family, we were able to tell him what we wanted to tell him, even though he couldn’t respond much. He was alert until the very end, so we knew he heard everything and he even waved goodbye to us on the final call.”
When told of her dad’s passing, Lekha was desperate to return home. Despite knowing that Sri Lanka was in lockdown Lekha went through the motion of looking for a flight to return home. “I did look at flights to Sri Lanka. There was one which was about $3000 and over 20 hours long via Singapore. However, when I read the fine print it said that Singapore only allows Singaporean residents and nationals to arrive, so that was not applicable even though it was given as an option on a leading flight booking website. I also knew that Sri Lanka had the 2-week quarantine restriction which would have defeated the purpose too. So yes despite knowing that everything was on lockdown I still looked for a way to go” adds Lekha.
As the only child in her family, Lekha was used to always being in control of the key decisions that were made around her dad’s illness and now with a funeral to be organized and Lekha remaining thousands of miles away from Sri Lanka she had to rely on a support network of immediate family, in-laws and best friends to help organize the funeral. “When it was happening, I found it harder not being there as I felt that I wanted to call them every 5 minutes to know what’s going on” she adds.
Ridden with grief and emotion, Lekha is very emotional when she describes the ache she felt at not being able to support her mother especially at this most harrowing time. “I am very sad to not have been there in person. Also sad to not be there to support my mum and hold her and comfort her. However at the same time knowing it’s beyond our control also makes me accept it, as I don’t have any regrets, just sadness.”
For countless people being present at the funeral of a family member gives them closure and being part of it via WhatApp is not the same. Lekha subscribes to the notion that one must do what you can when the person is alive and Lekha did her utmost for dad along with her mum. For Lekha, closure is derived from the shared memories of her dad. “I find closure in talking about him and remembering the good times. It has helped a lot with people sharing their experiences and stories with him. Half of them I never knew and am happy and proud to hear some stories which gives me that closure. Summing up her thoughts Lekha says “yes, they do say that time is a healer but I don’t think you need to move on fast because it is very hard to lose a loved one and no one expects you to go about your business as usual. You need to take time to grieve and cry.”
For Sujith Weerasinghe in the UK, it was just a normal day as he engaged in his customary daily telephone conversation with his mum, an octogenarian in Sri Lanka with no major medical concerns. The next morning Sujith was awoken to the sorrowful news that his beloved mother had passed away at home in her sleep. His immediate reaction was to explore possibilities of returning home to Sri Lanka. But due to the lockdown, this proved to be nigh on impossible. Being the only son in the family Sujith was extremely close to his mother and was desperate to come to Sri Lanka to bid her his personal and final goodbye. At times, grief propels people to do the strangest things, and such was his desperation to return to Sri Lanka that he even explored the options of flying to Sri Lanka via India, Maldives, and Bangladesh but they are also under lockdown until 3 May. “I explained the situation to the relevant authorities so that they could explore possibilities to get me to Sri Lanka. They all understood my attempts and sympathized but due to flight restrictions they couldn’t help.”
With time and options running out Sujith approached one of the leading undertakers in the country and pleaded with them to accept his mother body and keep it in cold storage till lockdown was lifted. “I was told that at any other time it would be possible but due to the COVD-19 pandemic there were strict rules in place as to how funerals should be conducted and it would not be possible to keep my mother’s body in cold storage until the lockdown was lifted,” he said. “I was at my wit's end as there was no way on earth I could return to Sri Lanka. I was bereft with immense sadness. I had never ever expected this to happen. I am overseas as is my sister and our only other sibling thankfully was in Sri Lanka. That was of some consolation” he adds.
Commenting on how the funeral was conducted Sujith explains “ my brother-in-law and nephew with the assistance of some friends and relatives got some curfew passes and managed to organize the funeral. I was told that the body should be taken to a parlour but I was not willing to accept that as I wanted my mother’s final journey to commence from our family home. Within hours of her passing the body was brought to the house and we were told that the funeral must be held by sunset.”
Having a mother who was popular in the neighbourhood brought with it its own unique set of issues, as Sujith explains “lots of people in the area wanted to come for the funeral. They slowly made their way to the house and tried their best to maintain social distancing. We couldn’t tell them not to come but they understood the reality of it and after paying their respects they left without lingering.”
Thanks to the advancement of technology Sujith was able to participate in the funeral rituals of Paansakule by joining in on Facetime. He had also asked a couple of his friends to live stream the entire proceedings so that his family in the UK and his sister in the USA could join in. “I found this to be of some comfort but it was still nothing like being there in person. Never ever did I think I would not be able to attend the funeral of my mother” he says.
“Now I’m always nervous when my phone rings anytime after 10 pm, in case of a grave situation back home in Sri Lanka. I reflect on the knowledge that I did everything possible for my mum even from 5,000 miles away” he says. “Grief is a strange thing,” Sujith says. “I have sought solace in the fact that I did everything I could for my mum, despite being separated by oceans. I made special trips to see her in Sri Lanka and my mother is the reason I am the person I am today” he says.
“Suddenly all that remains are the ripples of memories and an aching feeling that you were not there to say a personal goodbye to the person who gave you life and brought you into this world” Sujith adds his voice faltering and his aching heart heavy with emotion.