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Grieving in the Age of COVID 19

On March 9, 2020 I landed in Atlanta, flying in from New Orleans. I’d heard about the coronavirus, but it was something far removed from me. In the Lyft on the way to my hotel I opened my news app; the first story I saw was a report that New Orleans had ONE case. I wasn’t too worried…at first. By that Sunday, we were up to 103 cases. That was also the week that it became personal and real for me; someone I’d known my whole life died from coronavirus. My city soon became a hotspot, the medical experts say the culprit was Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras brings thousands of people from all over the world. People are standing basically cheek to cheek, so I wasn’t surprised that that’s where this may have all began.

The cases continued to grow. By the first week of April, four people I personally knew had perished in this pandemic. Last week a dear sister in the movement lost her life to coronavirus – or COVID-19. But those weren’t the only deaths, see the Grim Reaper is also touching hearts, one person died of a heart attack. The Grim Reaper is visiting people with cancer, two people died of cancer. And that old sneaky Reaper is also visiting young women with children. In one week, I knew six people who died. Six families I could not pay my respects to. Six funerals that I could not attend. On Saturday night, May 9, this reality hit my family with a vicious roundhouse kick. My youngest grandson lost his mom. She was only 43 years old and the mother of five sons. She was part of my family for 10+ years and I loved her. There will be no funeral.

Funerals in New Orleans are more for the living than the dead. We gather and comfort each other, making sure the family knows you are there. Funerals allow us to gather and reminisce on the special times you had with the deceased. We’d laugh, cry, imitate the deceased, and just be in community with each other. Funerals are where we get strength from each other. Most funerals in New Orleans ends with a Secondline. The Secondline is a procession of Brass Bands, Buckjumpers, and walkers. If the person is well known the Secondline can consist of hundreds of people. (Here’s a link to a New Orleans Secondline.) It’s the time where you let your hair down for the deceased. It’s a beautiful ending to the funeral. COVID-19 has taken that away from us. So once again, people are being erased from my life.

COVID-19 is my 2020 Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. There were over 1000 people killed/died during that time. For a number of years, I didn’t know anyone who had died during Hurricane Katrina. I came back home to New Orleans in 2007 and began to run into old friends. I’d ask about someone and hear, oh they drowned in the storm. It was the most surreal feeling in the world. How could they be gone? I never got the chance to say good-bye. Here we are again almost 15 years after Hurricane Katrina. And once again I don’t know what to do with my grief. This time it’s not years before I hear of the person’s passing, but the feeling’s the same. There are no big funerals, no sense of farewell, just a void that can’t be filled. After Katrina we eventually came together to honor and celebrate those who had become ancestors. I don’t see that happening this time.

The biggest difference in 2005 and now is after Hurricane Katrina there was no new normal. I just went back to my life and found a way to deal with the grief. I think helping to rebuild our local HIV community helped, but what will that look like this time? I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable in a crowd again. I know for the foreseeable future I’m wearing a mask. I won’t be giving hugs or shaking hands. I will be giving all coughs and sneezes the side-eye…lol. Is this my new normal? Yes, at least until there’s a vaccine for this thing.

I would like to dedicate this blog to: Deloris Dockrey and Lashamba Cousin