Life and Death, Tragedy and Grief in the time of COVID-19

Grief can be an isolating experience, but as the world adapts to life in a pandemic, we are forced to redesign how we grieve as communities in isolation. And when a community is unable to physically come together in tragedy, they find ways to be together, apart.

I live on the east coast of Canada, in the province of Nova Scotia. We are known for our beautiful scenery, our hospitality, humor and our sense of community. And on April 18th, 2020, in the midst of isolation, we became known for something else: a title with a weight much too heavy to hold. We became the site of the deadliest mass shooting in Canada’s history. This type of violence is unknown in our province, even in our country. Our close-knit communities were shocked and shattered, while the reality of social distancing keeps us from doing what we would normally do in times of tragedy. We want to come together to provide and receive comfort, we want to hold each other, to cry, to make food, to support those affected, but the confines of COVID-19 make it difficult to mourn.

What do we do when we cannot come together to grieve?

We come together, apart. And fall apart, together.

We light candles and place them on our front porches to push out the darkness.

Our blue Nova Scotia tartan hangs on railings and doorways, paper hearts fill our windows.

We try to find the right words, so, we turn to songs.

We gather virtual strength from virtual sources.

We sing songs from balconies, songs that are in our blood, like Fare Thee Well Love and Farewell to Nova Scotia.

We hold fundraisers online to provide financial help to affected families.

When we can’t do what we normally do, we do what we can.

In our region, the heart of the home is the kitchen and where we often gather to play tunes and share stories. Locally, a Facebook page called The Ultimate Nova Scotia Kitchen Party (COVID-19 edition) started as a way to stay connected through the COVID crisis. People record from home and upload videos to the page. One video shows a 17-year-old girl playing a fiddle.  Days later, she would become the youngest victim of the mass killing. The page quickly changed to show dozens of videos about the shootings. People just wanting a place to express their grief share tunes, new and old, and offer their condolences. The entire country turns to us, embracing our province, sending words of comfort and support.

Bagpipes, guitars and fiddle-strains fill the internet air. Another tribute video was filmed on the deck of the HMCS Fredericton, a Halifax-class frigate that serves the Canadian Forces. Here, a young naval officer from Nova Scotia, plays a heartbreaking tribute to the victims on her bagpipes. A week later, she is one of six Canadians aboard a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter that crashes into international waters between Greece and Italy. The news comes home, and again, we are gutted. Again, we cannot come together. It all seems too much to bear. Yet we go on, finding ways to connect our grief in the ways that the current climate allows.

Obituaries tell us there will be time later to celebrate the lives of those lost, but for now we wait. We hold our pain tenderly.

We hold on, until the day we can hold each other again.


Feature photo by Becky MacDonald


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