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Grieving in an Isolated World

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In Loving Memory of Teresa Cairns (1953–2020)

On the morning of Friday 20th March the world continued to lockdown, self-isolate and social distance themselves. As a staffer in the employment of a Member of Parliament, I was working from home alongside my partner, a project manager specialising in language and translations. Our temporary office in the kitchen was being used for a rushed breakfast as we both settled in to morning briefings and I logged into a video call with my office team. It was then that my phone rang; the words ‘mother’ flashed across my screen with a photo of my mum I recognised from my very regular phone calls with her, the most recent of which had been the night before; discussing the big questions in life, on this occasion; ‘how old Al Pacino was during the filming of the first Godfather film.’ I apologised to my colleagues on the video call and went to answer the phone. Instantly my world fell apart.

I could hear my step dad, my mums partner of nearly 20 years in emotional distress and before he could even speak; my stomach sank to a depth I have never before experienced. He managed to tell me, with incredible strength, that my mum had just suddenly and shockingly passed away. She was 66 years old. I am 26 years old.

Mum was a bookworm and a keen writer and as a single mother, she raised me to appreciate the power of writing and always taught me that you can better understand life, face challenges and make up your mind by learning to ‘think in ink’, something I am finally trying to do.

There are many advantages and wonderful quirks about being born to a 40 year old mother; the life lessons, the experience and the knowledge. But one of the awful facts of life I had come to acknowledge years before many of my friends or peers was that one day I would be without my mother, but I was sure that day was a long way away. I would always calculate that when I was 40 mum would be 80 and as both my grandparents had passed away aged 86 I thought there was little to worry about.

However, I was now staring into a black abyss, feeling emotions I had never anticipated I could feel and over the next few days I would experience everything from heartbroken loneliness, sheer agonising grief, hourly disbelief, recurring shock and raw anger. A week since that phone call I am still very much in the early stages of grieving and these emotions visit on an interchangeable cycle; just when you think you’re holding it together, making phone calls you never dreamed you would ever make or speaking to funeral directors about the cost of coffins; you then unexpectedly break down in the shower whilst washing your hair. I know this is natural and with family, friends and an amazing fiancé supporting me I am very lucky compared to many others who face the crippling pain of grief alone. However what has been a very unnatural aspect of this process so far is the viral elephant in the room; COVID-19. In the lead up to her death my mum was very anxious about the developing situation and what isolation would mean for her, her family and her friends many of whom were over the age of 70 and had underlying health conditions.

We had initially worried that this stress has caused a sudden heart attack but later, my step dad would recount what happened; starting with mum feeling breathless and fainting in the morning, then as a team of very brave paramedics prepared to take her to hospital with suspected low blood pressure; she entered cardiac arrest in the ambulance on the driveway of the beautiful country cottage she had just moved into in November and was unable to be resuscitated despite the best efforts of those present. All of this happened in the space of an hour. The coroner has since confirmed this was a deadly pulmonary embolism.

Not only are we now facing the most horrific time of our lives but we are doing so in lockdown. Each day has brought its own challenges, with family unable to visit, repeated conversations about what has happened with many different people (solely over text or telephone), my step dad’s sister unable to travel to stay with him and very limited contact with the rest of the outside world in our rural Northumbrian bubble. Most of all, the feeling of shock and disbelief has added to the already dystopian vibe of daily life in the U.K.

Grieving at the best of times is difficult and unfortunately despite the world being thrown into uncertainty and unprecedented isolation and separation; for the most part life goes on and death is a key feature of that process. We were told their would be a delay to the post-mortem due to a rather grim ‘backlog’ and possible delays to certification due to the coroner now working from home and not having the proper printing facilities to issue certificates of death. All of this aside the overwhelming experience of losing your first friend and the soul crushing realisation that this has actually happened is something many people will be living through during these uncertain times and this is why support for one another in our local communities and neighbourhoods across the country must be a priority for each and every one of us.

Once the world returns to some form of normality and we begin to rebuild society, I hope to join my mum’s friends and family for a proper memorial service where we can share, remember and celebrate the wonderful, inspiring and loving woman she was. Until that time, we continue to grieve in isolation.