The Coronavirus Is Stealing Our Ability to Grieve

My aunt and cousins had to wear masks and stand dozens of meters away at the cemetery as men in protective suits laid my uncle into the grave.

Around the world, families are forced to mourn the dead from afar. (Lizzie Gill)

My uncle had been sick for a couple of days, they told me, with a fever, cough, headache. The symptoms were nothing extraordinary, but this time was different. COVID-19 had been spreading uncontrollably throughout Tehran for weeks. And the cancer treatments my uncle had endured for the past few years had obliterated his immune system. His wife and adult children did all they could: quarantining him in a separate room and disinfecting the entire house daily. He was in his 80s and had cancer. They knew he was vulnerable.

His symptoms started slowly but cascaded rapidly into shortness of breath. That was when they rushed him to a hospital, in a taxi. The hospital staff, recognizing his symptoms, immediately moved him to a quarantine room. No one was allowed inside except for hospital staff wearing protective gear. My cousins, his children, said he looked sad and scared, his eyes following them as they paced back and forth on the other side of the sterile glass.

The doctors suspected he had pneumonia and tested him for COVID-19. They reassured the family that they would take good care of him. They encouraged them to go home and wait for the hospital to call with an update the next day. The next afternoon, my family got a call, but the news was not what they were expecting. My uncle was dead. He’d failed to respond to treatment and stopped breathing.

To date, more than 17,000 people worldwide have died from the coronavirus. But COVID-19 is taking more than these lives. My aunt and cousins had to modify the way they said goodbye. They could not be at my uncle’s bedside, holding his hand. And when he died, they had to mourn alone. Funeral rites for many Iranians are the second-most-important event in a life, after weddings. The process is intricate and intimate, full of melancholy. His family could not perform these rituals. On top of everything else, the coronavirus stole their ability to properly grieve.

We called my uncle “Haji Ahmad.” To be precise, he was my aunt’s husband, a man she’d married in her home village more than 60 years ago. He was tall, with broad shoulders, and an aggressively chiseled jaw. His look was stern, like that of a drill sergeant, lips tightened, perfect posture. But his outward appearance was just an illusion, the emotional chain mail of a man who spent much of his life scraping together a living for his family in the wolves’ den that is central Tehran. This man supported four children who grew to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, computer science, and engineering.

Behind the veneer was a kind, gentle person with a mastery of the art of Iranian manners, or tarof. From the time I was a teenager, visiting Iran from the U.S. in the summers, he welcomed me into his home as if I were his own child. He helped his wife, my aunt, in the kitchen. He placed food in front of me and waited until I ate, a beautiful, almost cartoonish display of respect.

The day my uncle passed away, his son—my cousin—rushed to the hospital. He had to look at his father’s lifeless body through a window. “I couldn’t even hold him,” he said. “I watched them cart him away like a stranger.” The doctors told him they were still waiting for the COVID-19 test to come back but that it would very likely be positive, so they had to take precautions. The hospital staff allowed no contact from the family. And my uncle’s burial, they said, would be administered by the local government. It was protocol.

Years ago, another uncle of mine passed away while I was in Iran. My family asked me to help with the burial rites. I accompanied my cousins to wash my uncle’s body, a symbolic ritual to ensure he entered the afterlife cleansed and pure. His body lay on a stainless-steel table as we each took turns washing him. I remember being shocked by how visceral it all felt. There was no barrier between us and the ugliness of death. A part of me, if I’m being honest, saw it as a backwards custom, stuck in history. Yet I couldn’t help but also feel the sense of catharsis, the beauty of seeing a loved one off in such an intimate fashion. It was like being a part of his transition, physically connected until his shrouded body was laid into the earth. I understood why it was so important, why the family needed it.

None of that closure would be afforded to my uncle’s family in 2020. His COVID-19 test had come back positive. Despite my family’s protests, health officials maintained that protocols must be followed; he would have to be buried in a way that prevented further spread of the virus.

My aunt and cousins had to wear masks and stand dozens of meters away at the cemetery as men in protective suits laid Haji Ahmad into the grave. Earlier, my aunt had given one of the men a bottle of holy water from the well of Zamzam in Mecca. She had asked him to splash the water over her husband’s body before interring him. He complied.

The burial felt incomplete, my cousins and aunt told my mother via videochat the next day. They understood why he had to be buried that way, but the unfairness stung. “He was doing better a few weeks ago,” my cousin said. “I thought he might live another year, maybe two. I hate imagining him dying alone.”

When my other uncle passed away 13 years ago, my extended family and his friends gathered so that we could mourn together. His house was packed with people. Younger family members went around attending to everyone’s needs, handing out small cups of tea, fruit, and water with nabat, crystalized saffron rock candy. Then a service was held at a local mosque, where hundreds of people came to pay their respects. They held another service 40 days later. The process took weeks and allowed everyone to come to terms with their loss. In the days after Haji Ahmad’s passing, the family couldn’t hold any kind of service. And people were too afraid to visit my aunt, because they didn’t want to contract the virus. My uncle had many friends in his life, but now his family sat alone, trying to accept their new reality.

They didn’t have much time to mourn either. My aunt began showing symptoms, and my cousin’s husband, a man in his 50s, tested positive for COVID-19. He has since been hospitalized.