Losing a loved one during the coronavirus pandemic: Deb’s story

Geoffrey Roberts died of natural causes in March of 2020. Geoffrey’s daughter-in-law – writer, mental health advocate and mother-of-three Dr Deb Roberts – provides a personal account of her family’s grief and how they coped with losing a loved one during the coronavirus pandemic.

It's a month after his death. A crashing wave-like sensation comes over me and I feel empty. On hearing the sudden news. At the funeral. Turning into his old street. And so many other times. Please come back Geoffrey.

My unassuming but present father-in-law – my husband’s biggest fan and my three sons’ loyal Poppy – was unexpectedly taken from us. The fish 'n' chip-run with his grandsons, a weekly event for more than 12 years, has come to an end. He will never be physically returning to our family.

Geoffrey was 80-years-old and in good health. He died in his home of natural causes during the thick of COVID-19. We had seen him, albeit from a distance, just three days prior.

How restrictions affected our reality of grief and loss

The restrictions made logistics extremely difficult, which fuelled our already heightened feelings of shock, anger and sadness.

From the moment they retrieved his body and took him to the coroner, everything involved unfamiliar parameters, constraints. Making funeral arrangements. The funeral itself. Not being able to grieve in the usual manner. Not being able to hug or physically comfort extended family.

We understood the logic and reality – that the physical distancing measures were designed to keep us safe as a society. Regardless, they were and still are compounding our family’s heartbreak.

We knew that only a total of ten people could attend the funeral. Geoffrey was one of five children, had a large extended family and was much-loved. His own brothers and sister could not be there. Nor could we have a celebrant – this meant that his companion of the last 14 years could attend (his beloved wife having passed 16 years earlier).

A large family smiles for a selfie

Everyone in our household is managing their own waves. Of grief. Of loss. Of sadness.

My husband busies himself with work which is an immediate and real challenge during the pandemic. It’s his way right now but I know he feels lonely.

My 16-year-old will sometimes tell me how much he misses him, usually late at night. Tears, unwelcome as they are, sometimes well up. Thanks to his father, he understands that real men occasionally cry.

My quirky 13-year-old wears his Poppy’s cap during the day but says he's trying not to think about it. I know he's hurting. My 10-year-old often falls asleep with Poppy’s Essendon scarf, letting me know he too feels his absence intensely.

Clearing out personal treasures

It’s been more than four weeks since he died. His home has been partially cleared out, with mementos and other special things going to each family member and the rest given away to charities or thrown in the skip out front (an eerie reminder in itself).

We have had to take turns with extended family members going into his home at separate times because of the COVID-19 restrictions. Having to do so alone rather than together as a family is another challenging and harsh reality.

Going to his house a few days ago, I turned into his street and the tears instantly welled in my eyes. Another crashing wave, the uncomfortable feeling of emptiness.

When I walked into the house, I saw that there were piles of things left by my sister-in-law. Part of her own way of processing, she had already done a lot of sorting and clearing. Without her siblings there to help, to provide comfort, or to share the many fond memories that must have come flooding back.

Keep on going

There are things in that skip that Geoffrey probably treasured at one time and thought he’d keep for his family.

I remind myself and my family that the actual treasure was his consistent presence in our lives for many years. And so we hold onto the feeling of love and devotion he had for his family.

I can still hear his voice, reminding us that ‘it’s all part of life, keep on going.’

Whether death comes during this pandemic or during more ‘normal’ times, I know that there is no right way through grief and loss. For my family, like many others, it’s a process that can’t and shouldn’t be hurried.

And the waves of emotion? Just like those in the ocean, they will take their natural course, and each of them will affect us differently.

And that’s OK.


Our article, Grieving the loss of a loved one during the coronavirus pandemic, looks at things you can do help cope with grief over the loss of a loved one during this difficult time.



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