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."

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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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