Despite being a deeply divided nation, South Africans are united in their grief for those who have lost the battle against Covid-19. Recently, the nation bid farewell to minister Jackson Mthembu while thousands of other families continue to feel unsafe in their bereavement. Noluthando Ngcakani reports.
From funeral attendance limited by government to grieving alone in isolation, the Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how South Africans grieve for their loved ones.
Now a Pretoria-based social worker and bereavement expert, Dr Nelia Drenth, confirms that as the Covid-19 body count grows, grief and bereavement have become insurmountable for those left behind.
The highly infectious coronavirus continue to flood the news headlines with reports of entire families decimated, with many feeling “unsafe in their bereavement”. Around us, the health system is under immense strain, and authorities struggle to contain the outbreak.
There seem to be no end to the thousands of harrowing stories.
This includes the grim festive season which unfolded in KwaZulu-Natal as the Chitray family from Verulam, outside Durban, was left with a sole survivor following the Covid-19-related deaths of Cynthia (71), her son Dean (42) and family patriarch Sam Chitray (71).
In Cradock in the Eastern Cape, two sisters, Bridget (19), and Samantha Stander (27), are amongst the growing list of young people to succumb to the virus this year. And in North West, vegetable farmer Eric Mauwane and his family could never have prepared themselves for the burying two of their own.
Mauwane tells Food For Mzansi his elder brother was left widowed four days after he had buried his daughter early this month. Both were taken by Covid-19.
“We were trying to finalise the funeral arrangements (for my niece) when my brother’s wife was admitted (to hospital). She was down and grieving and wanted nothing more than to die,” Mauwane says.
The grief has debilitated his brother. “On most days when I call him, he is asleep.”
The coronavirus has become an unwelcome adjustment in our daily lives changing how we move, how we die and how we grieve, says Drenth in a no-holds-barred interview with Food For Mzansi.
Specialising in grief and trauma counselling, Drenth offers her services through private practice in Gauteng.
Accompanied by paralysing fear, she says the experience and aftermath of death have become complicated, changing the face of grief as we know it.
“Grief is already complicated. It is not easy to say goodbye to someone close to you.
“We are not prepared for how sudden it is. Now, everybody is afraid; everybody is cautious. Everybody fears ‘it’ and you don’t know how to prepare, or even what you are preparing yourself for,” she says.
‘I forgive you. I love you. Goodbye. Sit down and talk to each other about the fears of the possibility of dying.’ – Dr Nelia Drenth
When experiencing a Covid-19-related death, it is important to remember to take care of yourself and understand that grief is a process.
“You will move in and out of your grief. One moment you will be fine and the next you will not (be fine). That is a normal process in which your body psychologically adapts to this huge thing that has happened to you.
“Cry. I hate that ‘Be strong’ phrase,” Drenth says firmly.
Make peace with your own mortality
There were times where we once felt in control, but Covid-19 has robbed us of little freedoms, like how we choose to practice our grieving processes, she adds.
It is therefore imperative that we do not shy away from the “fear” brought about by the crippling virus. Face it so that you are prepared when it hits you.
When dealing with fear amid the second wave of the virus, the best thing we can do is prepare ourselves. “Have those difficult conversations that we often brush aside before (loved ones) become sick,” she says.
“I forgive you. I love you. Goodbye,” these are the three things people want to hear when someone they love is dying, says Drenth.
Sit down and talk to each other about the fears of the possibility of dying, because it can happen to any one of us. “It’s like when you are at the beach and you face the waves, then you can at least see this is a big wave coming, I can at least dive underneath, or I can just stand firm.
“If you stand with your back to it, it means that you are not prepared. This wave is going to hit you hard. Face the possibility of your own mortality,” she advises.
Despite the endless desolation of Covid-19-related death, Drenth suggests that South Africans tap into their human resilience. We are overcomers by nature, after all, she says.
“Make good memories while you still can. Enjoy each other. Talk about the good stuff in life, enjoy time (#AloneTogether) so that when one has died and the other is left behind, you can at least cherish the memories.”
‘Sometimes from the outside it looks like farmers are careless and don’t care about the well-being of farmworkers. Communication is key now more than ever.’ – Dr Kobus Laubscher
Embrace the post-traumatic growth, she adds. “We have adapted. Now putting on that (face) mask is second nature. We learned to wash our hands frequently. That is growth.”
Drenth has a friendly reminder for her fellow South Africans. “No one has control over this virus except you who should be washing your hands, wearing a mask and respecting (Covid-19 protocols); not yelling at the president when he bans alcohol or keeps schools closed. We should be grateful that someone is protecting us.”
When Covid-19 comes knocking
Apart from dealing from the sudden death of his family members, Mauwane says that he most fears the possibility of infecting his farmworkers.
When approaching the virus and its devastating effects on a farm, agricultural economist and human resources expert Dr Kobus Laubsher suggests farmers practice empathy and ubuntu.
There is no room for the “no work, no pay” rhetoric, he stresses. “That is not the spirit. Farmers can be lenient and encourage (workers) to communicate, once communicated, act on the information you have and offer comfort.”
The farm and the people who work the land are an extended family. Covid-19-related deaths happen so suddenly, and it is our responsibility to keep each other safe, says Laubsher.
“Sometimes, from the outside, it looks like farmers are careless and don’t care about the well-being of farmworkers. Communication is key now more than ever, when caring for your farm in the age of Covid-19, you need to act and think differently.”
Mauwane advises farmers to “be strong. You try to be as safe and careful as you possibly can, but it happens when you least expect it, you catch it in the most unexpected place. Be careful.”