On 20 March I went to visit my maternal grandfather at his care home in East London.
The country was going into lockdown the following Monday. I gently told him that I wouldn’t be able to see him “for a few weeks” but would call him. I remember feeling uneasy about how vague that sounded.
He died two weeks later. He had prostate cancer and an underlying chest infection, but neither condition was immediately life-threatening before lockdown, so to lose him was a shock.
My mother and her father were extremely close. She lives in the UK but goes home to Jamaica regularly. When in the UK she would visit grandad at the home every day. She was in Jamaica when he died. Ringing her to deliver the news is one of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever made. At the grand age of 90, we were only too aware of how blessed we were as a family to have had him in our lives for as long as we did – but what none of us could have known is that, when the day came, my mum wouldn’t be able to attend her father’s funeral.
Unbeknown to me, there was more grief to come. My father, who lived in the US, also residing in a care home and suffered with ill health, died eight days after my grandfather.
Grief during lockdown feels like being dunked underwater with your hands tied. In this current crisis, the habitual ways in which we grieve have been suspended. The sensuous comfort of family and close friends disconnected. The fortress of hugs, the shoulders to lean on, the warmth of a hand laid gently on the small of our backs to steady and support us is, for now, out of reach.
“Grief during lockdown feels like being dunked underwater with your hands tied”
It is, therefore, a testament to both the resilience of the Caribbean community and the importance of Nine Night that this beautiful tradition of coming together to celebrate our beloved through dance, music, prayer and storytelling is now an online virtual experience across the diaspora.
Many of my family logged onto Zoom to celebrate my grandfather’s Nine Night. It was comforting for them to collectively raise a glass and wish him well along his journey, as we believe, to join the ancestors in the spirit world. Grandad’s Nine Night fell just two days after my father passed. I valued the sentiment of coming together, but, when it came to it, I couldn’t bring myself to tune in. I chose instead to celebrate his life with my partner and children, with assistance from my music system, white rum and ginger ale – just ginger ale for the kids, of course.
With my father in the US, I was in the same awful situation as my mother – unable to be with him on his final day above ground. On the day of his Nine Night – which came around in a flash – I was reminded why it is as important to the living as it is to the spirit of the deceased. That afternoon I had fallen asleep with my chest feeling tight, as though a weight was pressing down on top of me. I woke a couple of hours later. Sleep hadn’t relieved the feeling, and again, I found myself unable to face a community of online faces. But my father’s presence around me felt tangible.
My partner and children helped me to create a Nine Night online flyer that I sent to family and friends. I asked them to participate by sending any photos they had of my father, to raise a glass and – if the mood took them – to send me a picture of themselves with their chosen beverage, celebrating him. The response was immediate and immense. With each picture, each heartfelt message or shared memory, slowly, slowly the grip on my chest was starting to release.
I have a long way to travel in my grief, but each day I observe that that particular manifestation of the sorrow has not returned.
“With each picture, each heartfelt message or shared memory, slowly the grip on my chest started to release”
Sadly, at this time, many families celebrating Nine Night have lost loved ones to Covid-19. As well as grieving, the stark revelation that black, Asian, mixed race and other ethnic minority communities are disproportionately losing their lives to the virus, adds insult to injury, to say the least.
Celebrating Nine Night has restated to me the power of the collective. It is a spiritual and political movement. Political because of the challenges our ancestors faced in upholding the tradition during captivity – an act of resistance that we now gain solace from, hundreds of years down the line. So, we too must stand together. Where people have been failed by the government or endangered by reckless employers, we must demand answers. An independent inquiry is essential; for the departed, for their families, and for the future.