Geopolitics

Bad Mourning, Relatives Of France's COVID Victims Seek Solace

Family members who lost a loved one in the early months of the pandemic, at the height of the restrictions, are now demanding a national day of mourning.

An old man enjoying the sun in Nice, in February 2021.
An old man enjoying the sun in Nice, in February 2021.
Jérémie Lamothe

PARIS — It has been a year and still the "anger," "anguish" and "feeling of injustice" resonate in Claire's voice. Her mother, Marie-Gabrielle, died in the spring of 2020 from COVID-19. She was in an isolated, long-term care unit in Charleville-sous-Bois, in northeastern France. Today, painful memories resurface.

"On March 22, she celebrated her 80th birthday. On March 31, we learned that she had COVID-19 and, on April 5, she died. "

What gnaws at Claire above all "is not having been able to say goodbye to her." At that time, France was going through its first weeks of full lockdown, with long-term care facilities and nursing homes closed to outsiders and visits forbidden.

The only way for Claire and her sister Nadia to connect with their mother during her final days was through the window of her room, thanks to the complicity of the nurses who were willing to make few exceptions to the lockdown. But the two 50-year-olds did not have the opportunity to see her "in real life," even after her death.

"Everything was done without us. We were forbidden to see the body, to be present for the cremation. Her personal belongings were put in a garbage bag," Claire recalls.

These "inhumane" funeral protocols prevented them from properly mourning. Nadia still refuses to scatter her ashes.

"We were forbidden to see the body, to be present for the cremation."

The story of these two sisters echoes that of many families of COVID-19 victims from the beginning of the epidemic. Accompanying the dead in their final moments of life, seeing their face one last time and organizing a proper ceremony to remember them are essential steps in the grieving process.

"The rites funeral provide a moment to repair and thus to limit the psychological disorders," explains Marie-Frédérique Bacqué, psychologist and professor of psychopathology at the University of Strasbourg. "But today there is an irreversible element felt by bereaved families who say to themselves: "I am missing something, and this lack, we will not be able to fill it.""

Haunting questions

It was a year ago, but for Corine Maysounabe, "this feeling of abandonment" felt after the death of her father, Serge (aged 88), on April 5 is still there. When she remembers this period, it is mostly "closed doors' that come to mind for this journalist who works for the newspaper Charente Libre.

"I went from a closed ambulance door, to a closed coffin, to a closed crematorium grate," she says. "Our loved ones have been taken away from us and all we do is suffer. We are no longer in control of anything."

During this first wave, the hospitals were saturated, the morticians were overwhelmed and the virus was still largely unknown. So many precautions were taken: The use of mortuary toilets were forbidden, the bodies were placed in the coffin immediately and burials and cremations were carried out immediately, sometimes without informing the families in time. For obvious reasons, loved ones felt that they were being left out.

Julie Grasset lost her father, Patrick, on March 25. She learned the news at 9 a.m. and planned to travel from the Paris region, where she lived, to the Marne region, further north, to attend the cremation scheduled for 3 p.m. the same day. She called the funeral home at precisely 12:41 p.m.

"I'll always remember the time," she says. And that's because she was told "it was too late, the cremation had already been going on for 11 minutes. Now I'm screaming, I don't understand," she continues, her voice tied up in knots. "I lost my way for several months after that."

France_funeral_church_ceremony

The funeral mass of a former Justice minister in Neuilly, in June 2020. — Photo:​ Abd Rabbo Ammar

Barred, at that time, from seeing the bodies of the deceased, families were left tormented by a gnawing question: Is it really my father, my grandmother or my brother who is in the coffin or in the urn?

"There is always this doubt. There's the hospital bracelet, the medical record, but you still think about it," says Corine Maysounabe. "In the mourning process, the fact of physically seeing your loved one dead makes it possible to say "that's it; it's finished. She's not breathing anymore." But during the first wave, that wasn't the case."

Determined later to be "excessive," this protocol was relaxed in May by a decree allowing families to see, at their request, "the face of their loved one through an opening of 5 to 10 centimeters in the body bag, before the coffin is placed in the coffin and closed." Seven months after that, in January, the government lifted its "immediate" burial requirement.

Grieving upon a star

Dorian Duhamel, for his part, has the feeling of being "privileged." He was able to be with his 72-year-old grandmother, who was hospitalized in a coma, "just a few meters away and without touching her," until her last breath, on April 11, 2020. But what came next "was very hard."

"For the ceremony, we were only supposed to be 10 people present, but she had 12 grandchildren, so we had to choose who could attend," he says. "And then it was quickly dispatched: no blessing of the body, three prayers and it was over. I was robbed of an important moment to grieve and I'm still angry about it today."

Marie-Frédérique Bacqué launched a COVID bereavement study, called Covideuil, to analyze the impact on people who have lost a loved one during this period, whether from the coronavirus or not.

"What helps the bereaved is to be able to talk, not necessarily about the deceased, but about how they feel," she explains. "You also want to be listened to by loved ones, by your neighbors. This helps you not to get sick from your grief."

But in the spring of 2020, France was living under the leaden blanket of a strict lockdown that prevented the bereaved from meeting with their family, being supported by their friends or going away for a few days for a change of scenery. As a result, people had to find their own way to mark and share this moment: a funeral broadcast by video conference, an improvised altar at home, a lit candle...

People had to find their own way to mark and share this moment: a funeral broadcast by video conference, an improvised altar at home...

For Maysounabe, a star provided her with an outlet for her grief. "I didn't know where my father was, I was looking for a sign," she says. "My daughter had the idea of lighting a candle by the window every night. One evening in May, a single star was shining in the sky. We looked at it and smiled, "Maybe it's him." You have to hold on to little things like that."

A year has passed, but the health situation and the ever increasing death tolls spelled out each evening rekindles the pain for these families who feel they have been forgotten. To question the authorities and to help each other, they have formed an association called CoeurVide19. Created by Grasset, the group has allowed her to regain "strength by finding people who have experienced the same thing."

Together with Lionel Petitpas, who created the association Victimes du COVID-19 after the loss of his wife in March 2020, they are now asking for a national day of tribute to the deceased. So far their demands have gone unheeded. Although in March, President Emmanuel Macron's chief of staff, in a letter to Petitpas, indicated that "reflections are underway" on this subject. This day of tribute would be a necessary step for those who are still here and have been so far prevented from properly mourning.

"Everyone is broken. Can we stop and think about those who are gone?" asks Grasset. "I would just like a moment of remembering, for the nation to freeze for a minute, as we the families are all frozen."

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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