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Death at a Distance: Transnational Bereavement During COVID-19

Pandemic costs immigrants the opportunity for collective grieving


My grandmother died last January. Then, a month later, she called me.


The last time we had talked, we had argued. So when my phone flashed “Perima calling,” I thought — maybe she’s calling to have the literal last word. How like her. 


It turned out that my grandfather (Peripa), now using Perima’s phone, had not known to change the WhatsApp name and picture, and relatives around the world were freaking out at what they thought were Perima’s calls from the great beyond. 


In the months after her death, during countless calls with my sobbing mother, I realized that I had no idea how to even begin to grieve. My diminutive grandmother had been a small cyclone of unconditional love, constant encouragement, and meddlesome prying in her grandchildren’s lives and careers. She was my rock; yet, a year later, I have still been unable to shed a tear. For a prolific crier who weeps at sad commercials, puppies, and babies in cute hats, it was unnerving to be stuck in an icy limbo of numbness and denial. How do you grieve a force of nature? How do you grieve a loved one when there is no chance to say goodbye and no closure?


When you adopt another country as your home, what goes largely unacknowledged is that the moment you get on that plane, you may never be able to return in time (or at all) to see a loved one again. I learned too late that the transnational bereavement immigrants may face — the experience of losing a loved one in the country of origin/another country — often leaves them with pain and denial so profound and prolonged that even a year later, they may, as I do now, find themselves unable to move forward with their emotional lives.

  

Grief is the most democratic of visitors. It will come to call on everyone some day, and while grief is a process that will always be as unique as the person experiencing it, it also serves a very important and universal purpose. According to The University of Washington Counselling Centre, grief “allows us to ‘free-up’ energy that is bound to the lost person...Until we grieve effectively… a part of us remains tied to the past.” But when the efficacy of grief is hampered by overpriced tickets, visa constraints, financial hardship, and thousands of miles, the process of coping with loss and trying to achieve “a newfound sense of peace, rather than searing pain,” becomes considerably more complex.


In 2017, researchers at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) explored transnational bereavement and the resources immigrants use to cope with loss. Their report highlights that in addition to “a series of multiple losses and bereavements (related to their environment, cultural framework, family ties, socio-professional status, etc.)” that immigrants may already be experiencing, they may also face legal difficulties in practising cultural funeral rites, may not be able to afford closure-giving ceremonies in their host country, and may face professional consequences for bereavement-related absences.

 

    

Perima lived in Sydney, I’m an Indian immigrant living in Canada, and I didn’t have the Australian visa I would have needed to make it to the funeral or even the 13-day mourning ceremonies. Worse, a year later, COVID-19 border closures meant that attending the death anniversary rituals hosted by my extended family in New York was out of the question. Experiencing a constant sense of loss alone in cold Manitoba, I have felt that my grandmother’s death did not actually happen, and that in some Twilight-zone inspired parallel universe, she might actually call me again, and we’ll argue about politics, like old times. 


What does grief look like when it’s at a distance? Kristine Nielsen, a Danish-Canadian friend who immigrated to Denmark five years ago, said, “When you lose someone and they’re that far away, when you’re not there to grieve with everyone else you love, your grief takes on its own unique timeline,” and she is not alone in that sentiment. According to this article, “immigrants who do not get to participate in funeral rites may experience feelings of guilt and a longer period of denial.” 


The “ritualization” that is part of “healthy grieving” is largely more inaccessible for immigrants, leaving them to grieve alone, without familial support, and carrying a disproportionate “emotional toll.” However, the UQAM report also states that the most significant and effective support for bereaved immigrants comes from their local and transnational networks of friends, neighbours, community members, and loved ones abroad. 


My 12 years of life in Canada have given me a community that newcomers lack. But COVID-19 hit the world a month after my grandmother died, and upended everything. The community that had been all around me was forced to retreat into isolated bubbles and we were suddenly all grieving at a distance. Some of our greatest fears of being unable to visit dying loved ones have come to pass. We are also grieving our “normal” pre-pandemic life. If there’s anything I learned about how immigrants cope with grief from afar, it is that we cannot heal without coming together to process our collective grief as a community. And without even the company of friends to share my grief with, I became numb, and refused to think about Perima, because then I would have to acknowledge that my memories are all I have left of her.   


These memories include the times Perima lost her dentures and looked for them for hours, only to unfailingly find them in the trash. I remember her stories of ancient Indian warrior queens and dastardly demons. I remember the relish with which she devoured Tamil soap-operas. I remember her fanatical interest in her six grandchildren’s lives — spread across the globe we may have been, and yet she never missed a Saturday chat, a birthday, an anniversary, or a special occasion. With her long white hair elegantly plaited down her back and in her gold-bordered sarees, the grandmother of my memories strummed the veena and sang out the passion in her heart, instilling in me her love of Tamil classical music, but sadly not her proficiency.


I know that I have to accept that Perima, who attended all my cousins’ weddings, won’t be beaming her pride and joy when I marry the man I love. She held so many great-grandchildren; yet, she will never know my child. I will never have another political argument with her, and never again will her butter-soft palms caress my hair. If I had been able to grieve with my family, perhaps my memories wouldn’t have been the only thing I had of her — I would have had their memories too. 


Death is freedom for the soul, Hindu scripture says. Ancient tradition has it that when someone dies, the community should feed the local birds, in case the departed soul, in bird reincarnation, drops by to see if their family is coping, before finally leaving for good. On the day of my grandmother’s funeral, my grandfather sat on her favourite garden bench, stunned. A small songbird hopped close, pecked at birdseed, and crooked its head at him. After a minute’s contemplative gazing, it cooed the sweetest melody, and flew away.


I like to think that my grandmother, who adored songbirds, and was one herself, did come back to let us know she was off doing what she loved best. Maybe in a post-COVID world, I will celebrate this story of her freedom with my family. Until then, until I thaw, I’ll occasionally stare at my phone. Maybe there will be just one more call.   


*Notes*

Perima: Tamil for “older mother.” Could refer to an aunt or a grandmother. 

Peripa: Tamil for “older father.” Could refer to an uncle or a grandfather.

Transnational bereavement: The experience of losing a loved one who lives in another country, usually in the country of origin/heritage, although in diaspora communities, extended family members could reside in different countries around the world. 

About the author

Amrita Chavan was born and raised in Mumbai. Although Canada has been home for over a decade, Amrita continues to navigate the social, financial, and mental health challenges of integration in her adopted country. Amrita has worked in political communications and policy, and her interests include politics, feminist policy, and postcolonial thought. She now works in the gender-based violence support sector in Manitoba, Canada. Instagram: @amritamoon | Twitter: @amrita_chavan

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