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'We were unable to visit her or to say goodbye': The people behind the Covid death toll

As Ireland’s Covid-19 death toll surpasses 3,000, we speak to some of the families behind the figures.

Nancy Vereker with her great grandchildren on their Communion Day, Molly (left) and Ella Noelle.
Nancy Vereker with her great grandchildren on their Communion Day, Molly (left) and Ella Noelle.
Image: Aisling McGrath

THE COVID-19 DEATH toll in Ireland surpassed 3,000 people during the week.

The sad milestone was confirmed on Tuesday.

As Ireland continues to battle the third wave of the pandemic, figure-fatigue can set in at times. But behind every number is a person and all the loved ones they leave behind.

Grieving is incredibly difficult in general, let alone during a pandemic.

Under current guidelines only 10 people are meant to attend a funeral, and bereaved people cannot meet family and friends as they typically would.

People are finding different ways to cope and connect as they grieve, as well as pay tribute to their loved ones.

Anna McGrath’s mother Nancy (Anne) Vereker died from Covid-19 in Waterford earlier this month. She says that not being able to be with Nancy in person had a big impact on the grieving process.

“The reality of Covid-19 meant that we were unable to visit her or to say goodbye, and as the virus took its toll, the separation and divide it produced was hard to bear. All of us felt the natural urge to be at her side but were painfully aware that we could not.

“For my father, the loss was a shock as she had gone to the nursing home to convalesce after a spell in hospital with a broken hip. He was preparing for his partner of 65 years to return home, and the news of her death broke his heart,” Anna says.

Nancy (87) had seven children who “dearly loved and valued” her.

“Nancy overcame many challenges, such as breast cancer, and unfortunate falls that resulted in broken bones, yet she never complained but got on with life, as her family meant everything to her.”

Anna says her father Paddy, wearing PPE, got to see his wife once before Christmas and “she was doing well”.

“Although she would not be home for Christmas, he believed she would as soon as she was strong enough.”

On Christmas Eve, the family heard there was a Covid-19 outbreak in the nursing home. Nancy tested positive early in the new year and died on 17 January.

Anna says her father is “heartbroken” and the family has been left “without any real closure surrounding the loss” as the pandemic resulted in a “cruel form of separation” before Nancy’s death.

20210126_151730 Nancy with her granddaughter Sarah (left) and her daughter Louise (right). Source: Aisling McGrath

Anna says many families have been in the situation where “our beloved vulnerable people are isolated facing death, leaving us with no chance to say goodbye”.

“It is hard for human beings to be faced with the inability to touch or hold a beloved mother, to return the love at the end of her life.”

Anna’s sister Maria worked at the nursing home in question, which was “a blessing” for the family as she “was able to watch over her”.

Not having a ‘normal’ funeral was difficult for the family. Anna says the burial process is “an important element of closure that ultimately leads to a greater ability to process grief and loss”.

The pandemic takes that away.

“With Covid-19, the hugging of friends and family at funeral wakes and gravesides is missing. The open casket, which enables one to accept the loss and to say goodbye, is now shut.”

‘He was full of life’

Roderick Hugh (Rick) Hughes also died from Covid-19 in January. He passed away in Mowlam Nursing Home in Waterford on 13 January.

Rick was born in Dublin but grew up in Cork and Belfast. He was an architect and lived abroad for decades, in Canada and Slovenia, before moving back to Ireland a few years ago.

He initially lived independently in Waterford before health issues meant he had to move into the nursing home. He had a stroke but was recovering.

“He recovered physically very well (from the stroke) but his thinking was a bit scattered at times. He was remarkably resilient really and then he lost his sight in the last year, we have glaucoma in the family,” his sister, Myfanwy, tells us.

Her brother was “gregarious” and “full of life”.

She says Rick received “marvellous care” in the home. He was asymptomatic but tested positive for Covid-19 when all residents in the home were being tested as a precaution.

“It all happened so fast. He was positive on Wednesday and he died a week later,” she says.

WhatsApp Image 2021-01-27 at 11.36.33 Rick Hughes (right) pictured with his friend Kevin Walsh. Source: Myfanwy Hughes

Rick had four children and six grandchildren, and was 80 when died.

Myfanwy says some of the commentary around deaths – and the fact many of the people who died from Covid-19 are older or have other health issues – is hurtful to her family.

She says every death from Covid, regardless of age, is “terrible”.

“Every life matters. He’ll live on through his children and his grandchildren, but he still had a lot to give…

“We were going to get him a guitar this year because he loved to play and without the sight you can still play guitar.”

A few relatives were able to attend Rick’s funeral in Dungarvan, but many of his relatives live abroad.

Myfanwy says the service was beautiful thanks to a “wonderful funeral director”.

“Rick wouldn’t have wanted a religious service so it was in the funeral home and it was live-streamed.”

“We had readings and audio messages from the family, and something from my sister Dee in England and something brief from me, a bit of poetry. And music because he loves music so much.

“The service was beautiful and it honoured him, it did him justice.”

Myfanwy says many bereaved people get “no closure” because of the pandemic and are left in “some awful kind of limbo”.

She has found support through talking to friends over the phone, and via the Irish Hospice Foundation’s helpline (1800 80 70 77).

Orla Keegan, the head of Education and Bereavement at the Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF), said the bereavement helpline has received around 800 calls since it was set up in the summer. 

Keegan says it is important – particularly during January’s dark days – to reach out to people who have lost a loved one recently.

“We’d remind people that we all have a role to play here. If you know someone who has been bereaved, reach out to them. We can be very good in the short-term and then we get back to our business.

“People aren’t a statistic, and what we have noticed throughout January is that Covid-19 is reinforcing people’s grief. The intensity of what’s happening in January has awakened more grief in people.”

‘Devastating for families’

Jonathan Stafford, Managing Director of Staffords Funeral Homes in Dublin, says funeral directors in the capital during were “heavily affected” by a rise in deaths during the first wave of the pandemic last year, but that the ongoing surge is more widespread.

“[Funerals] were mainly in Dublin and urban areas. But this wave has hit the whole country,” Stafford tells us.

He says funerals services are “just as difficult” if not harder for loved ones at present due to limits on the number of mourners.

Only 10 people have been allowed attend funeral services since 22 December when Ireland was placed under Level 5 restrictions. 

“It’s really difficult. It’s difficult to grieve. People want to gather [outside of churches] but they can’t even do that,” says Stafford.

“People are dying from Covid-19 and you’re trying to protect the families that aren’t even affected by it. But really everybody is affected by it, people are not getting that feeling of support.

“I can’t describe how difficult it is for families right now,” Stafford adds.

David Fanagan, Director of Fanagans Funerals in Dublin, says bereaved families have been hardest hit during the pandemic.

“Funeral directors have adjusted. We can no longer provide the full service … it’s just not possible. So gathering at funeral homes, inviting people back to the house, that’s all gone.

“It has been devastating for families,” he says.

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For funeral directors in Ireland, it is a balancing act between catering to the needs of bereaved families and ensuring Public Health advice is followed.

“Every family we come in contact with … we are at pains to point out to families, to avoid any embarrassment, only 10 people are allowed,” Fanagan says.

“We are the first transmitters of this information to families who, bear in mind, have lost somebody and who may not quite be in tune with [restrictions].”

For rural funeral directors like Seán Conroy in Belmullet, Co Mayo, the last few weeks have hit hard.

The town has the highest incidence of Covid-19 in Ireland. In early January, it was estimated that one in 18 people in Belmullet were infected. 

The majority of people who have died in the area recently passed away with Covid-19, said Conroy. “People locally have obeyed the rules well, though,” he said, despite the difficulties.

The National Public Health Emergency Team [NPHET] has raised concerns regarding funerals since the onset of the pandemic.

Speaking on Monday, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said: “In the last number of months we have had repeated reports of large outbreaks associated with significant morbidity … associated with family gatherings and funerals in particular.”

“It’s a particularly sensitive area and it’s a particularly difficult time, obviously, for people, especially right now.

“And so we know that it’s not easy, but equally, the last thing we want is for more people to get sick or die as a result of not adhering to the measures that are there to protect them and their families in the first place.”

Late last year, it was reported that events to mark these dark times are in the works and can be expected this year and into the future. 

The Government proposes a programme of national and local events to commemorate those we have lost, celebrating those who’ve helped us survive and ensure there is support for those who feel alone or lost.

The government will collaborate with the media, civil society organisations and church groups on the approach and timing. 

The IHF has developed a section on its website that specifically deals with grief during the pandemic, and it includes advice and information to help people of all ages who are grieving. 

Its national freephone bereavement service can be reached on 1800 80 70 77 from 10am to 1pm, Monday to Friday.

About the author:

Órla Ryan and Cónal Thomas

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