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‘Virtual hugs’, & voyeurism: grief in isolation

The dead have a presence, however paradoxical that sounds.

“Alone, alone, all, all alone, 

Alone on a wide wide sea! 

And never a saint took pity on 

My soul in agony.” 

(Coleridge, 1798)  

Grief is isolating, but even more so when we must endure it alone. In Coleridge’s poem ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a grey-bearded sailor recounts the tragic story of his ship and its crew, who after great misfortune at sea, meet Death and Night-mare, playing dice for their souls. In the story, each sailor drops dead one by one, Death sparing the mariner alone. The image, like a mirage, shimmers on the page, still managing to inspire dread today. 

In history, there are few places richer to search for the theme of loneliness than pandemics. 

In his famous diary accounts of the bubonic plague in 1665, politician Samuel Pepys lamented the ghostliness of London during quarantine, haunted by spectres of the living.

“Now how few people I see, and those looking like people that have taken leave of the world,” he wrote on 28 August. Pepys was, admittedly, not an excellent self-isolator. 

The writer John Evelyn also described “a dismal passage… the streets thin with people, the shops shut up, and all in a mournful silence as not knowing whose turn might be next.” (Sep 7 1665).

It is not only our streets then, but ourselves. That is why, in modern times, Colerdige’s lumine inscriptions of loss and loneliness ring with a startling clarity. 

On ANZAC day this year, Anna’s* father died in Manchester. She was stuck in Sydney due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, but tells me she knew it was coming for some time— he had dementia, and recently was moved into critical care. I spoke to her the day after her father’s Zoom funeral. 

“I never ever thought I’d never make it to one of my parents’ funerals,” she says.

“It’s awful. You’re just removed from it… I think it’s like watching a TV episode, but you’re emotionally involved in it, and you should be there.” 

Anna’s father was Irish- born, with what she called a “wacky sense of humour”. (I can’t help imagine the Ancient Mariner, with his “glittering eye”). 

He hated ‘foreign’ food, she says, “even pasta”, and liked the 70s detective show Kojak. She recalls with laughter how he convinced her cousins a gorilla lived inside their cupboard; the way he sang ‘Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way,’ around the house— lyrics of the 1980 song by Mac Davis.

“He would have thought it [the Zoom funeral] was a load of nonsense,” she says. 

“When I was over in February, [he said] ‘I’ve had enough. Now I do want to die and I don’t want a big funeral.’ So he got his wish. We have some comfort that he got his wish… There were 16 people who were close to him.”

Anna’s father might not have passed due to COVID-19, but the pandemic did affect her experience of grief. 

“I was fearful about going over there and couldn’t realistically stay with my mum who was also 86 and with my sister whose husband’s got multiple sclerosis.” 

“And then there was also the issue as my daughter pointed out, when I came back to Australia, [of] being quarantined for two weeks when I probably would be grieving it the most.” 

At the time of writing, there are reportedly over 345 000 global coronavirus deaths. The infectious remains of many have not been properly mourned due to the sheer volume of the bodies overloading morgues. Funeral services exceeding ten people have been off limits since March in many places. (A funeral for funerals, if you will). 

But are we better off than past generations? More equipped to handle the agony of grieving alone, thanks to technology? 

Perhaps not as much as we think. Technology is an oxymoron in lockdown. Computers rectify our loneliness at the best of times, exacerbate it at the worst. The slightest glitch can derail a conversation, reminding us of the cyberspace barrier between us and our interlocutors. Even with the best Internet connection, we must work harder to interpret, at a loss for body language and distinct facial expressions. These technologies, it seems, are jarring antithesis to everything that is human.

Nina*, who attended her uncle’s Zoom funeral in May, described her experience of this tech- dissonance to me.

“At the beginning… the 10 people that were there were waiting for the service to start and it was delayed. So I was sort of logged in early and then just sort of sat there… staring at the coffins.”

I cannot help but think of 17th century London, that vision of urban dread.

The dead have a presence, however paradoxical that sounds. But our technologies exorcise it, and somehow that is even more unsettling than it being there.

“It felt quite detached anyway…” says Nina. “But then with all the technical issues that are added to it, I suppose it created that sense of even being more removed from celebrating his life.”

She also taught me what a ‘Virtual Hug’ was. 

“You could send a message through and they had balloons hanging in the room with the messages tied to them.” 

“ [But] to be honest, I felt that that was…slightly tacky…. [I] say that with all respect… Despite my comments about it leaving me feeling a little bit detached, I think that’s just the nature of technology.” 

The absence of a wake at Zoom funerals, said Anna, was also a heavy one.

“People would get together and they’d have dinner and they’d have a discussion of his life….You’d have that great warm feeling about it all and there just wasn’t that chance to do that.”

All of this makes me wonder whether Zoom funerals, ‘virtual hugs’, and online memorials— these things, will become artifacts of ‘covidity’. The 21st century-equivalent of Dark Ages diaries and letters preserving much of our knowledge about plague life. 

I suppose there is the issue of them not being physical. But hypothetically— would there be anything bad about that? 

Both Anna and Nina told me that despite the pitfalls of mourning a loved one during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are unexpected blessings. 

“When they brought him back in the hearse to the street… the whole street was lined with all the neighbors and friends… and family friends and cousins who weren’t able to go to the crematorium. So the whole street was lined up and my sister, and it was beautiful,” says Anna. “I think it meant alot to my mother.” 

Nina compared this to the old Irish tradition of processing the hearse around a town.

“It’s those sorts of really nice touches that may come into play and stay around after this…[It’s] interesting, the way that grief changes.” 

But when asked whether Zoom funerals could become new traditions, both women seem dubious, even mildly horrified. Though, they did eventually agree it would be convenient for relatives living far away, which may be self-evident of a sociological shift we cannot fully understand yet. 

Perhaps one day technology will progress enough for us to feel the physical warmth of a fellow human being through a livestream, to smell a whiff of their shampoo. 

But for now I agree with them. Nothing, especially not Zoom, can replace the physical. In fact, I would urge us to start writing letters to our friends in these times, send more care packages and deliver baked goods. Such artifacts may seem trivial, but work wonders for quelling loneliness. Future museums can’t very well put virtual hugs in glass cabinets. And there is a reason why text messages have not yet outstripped love letters.

But I’d like to return to Coleridge now. At the end of his poem, the mariner departs from the wedding guest, to whom he’s told his tale. 

“He went like one that hath been stunned,

And is of sense forlorn:

A sadder and a wiser man,

He rose the morrow morn.”

Of course, to be overly optimistic would contradict what I have already said: that grief in isolation is difficult, painful. But I would hope we can remember Coleridge in these times. Like ships, we are, passing between this point and the next one, but we may end up “sadder and wiser” at the end. And landing is always imminent.

*All the names in this article were changed to protect the privacy of interviewees.

(I rediscovered ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ through The ‘Big Read’; British writer Phillip Hoare in collaboration with others has assembled a crew of actors, musicians, artists, writers to recite lines of the epic over the past 2 months. These have been uploaded to Youtube weekly, starting 17 April and ending May 28. They include Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop and Hilary Mantel. I strongly recommend listening here.) 

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