By Kirstie Bedford
I was in my local park under a towering gum tree next to a golden wattle bursting in neon yellow flowers, watching on video call as my father’s breathing tube was taken out.
An hour later the phone rang. It was my cousin. Dad was deteriorating quickly. It was time to say goodbye.
She turned on the video and held out the phone. The nurses were gone.
Dad’s partner of thirty years sat by his side holding his hand. His siblings stood by the bed.
My husband and I sat together and watched through an iPhone as my 74-year-old dad took his last breath.
COVID-19 didn’t claim my dad’s life. He had a massive heart attack but the virus took my ability to be with him.
It meant I had to whisper my last words to him to a room full of family, via my cousin’s phone. It robbed me of holding his hand.
My father was hospitalised on the first Monday in July and died three days later.
Under normal circumstances, I would have travelled to Auckland from my home in Melbourne and been by his bedside on the Tuesday but the only flights were from Sydney and, even if I could have found a hotel room to quarantine in (I was told there was a shortage), I would have been confined to those four walls long after his funeral.
My dad’s name was Terry Keith Davis. He was the life of the party. The jokester who would do anything for anyone.
The sort of bloke who wouldn’t pass a country pub without stopping in for a pint and a chat. He had a few health issues but no one predicted this.
When the call came to say he was in the intensive care unit, it made me realise how truly bound I was to these borders.
His whanau (extended family) swiftly moved into action. A funeral director was appointed and his body was taken to the family property at Mataora Bay on the Coromandel Peninsula.
They sat with him for three days, singing and recounting stories of his life, and buried him at the family cemetery on a verdant hill overlooking a perfect blue bay.
There was no better send-off. But I wasn’t there.
Now, as everyone talks about life getting back to “normal” and count down the days of stage four lockdown restrictions, I am filled with anxiety knowing I have to go back to my homeland and face the reality that I will never see, hear or hug my father again.
I will drive to his house knowing he will never come to the door and stand at a gravesite where no one else is mourning.
But I am not alone. There are thousands of people facing the same fate.
Louise Friend, a Sydney-based specialist grief and loss counsellor and certified bereavement practitioner, says many of those who have lost loved ones during this pandemic may be at risk of prolonged grief disorder (PGD).
“It’s because they are dealing with the day-to-day practicalities and stresses of the pandemic and don’t have the space or time to grieve their loved one, which can delay their grief,” Friend says.
Attending a funeral with family and friends, she says, helps us accept the reality of their death. But there are things we can do to help with the grieving process.
“It’s important we create our own rituals,” Friend says. “Something as simple as lighting a candle with loved ones at the same time of day can help you connect and acknowledge that loss.”
It’s healthy to also accept there will be triggers, such as a song that reminds you of that person, and it’s important to be able to sit with that sadness and know it’s perfectly normal.
My trigger happened the day I found a voice-recording from Dad. He said he’d called my husband to talk to him about the rugby and a woman answered the phone.
He’d chuckled as he queried if he’d got him into trouble. I could see him so clearly then, his eyes filled with the mischief that never left him, even in old age.
It was a tragic reminder that I’d never get another message from him. I’d never have a conversation with him again.
It’s likely to be well into 2021 before I can get back to New Zealand and I know it’s going to be hard but my final farewell is something I need to do and COVID can’t take that from me.
See you then, Dad.