The agony of losing loved ones to COVID-19 is becoming considerably more common as the number of deaths from the virus over the last six weeks more than doubled the total number for the duration of the pandemic.
For Kemar Cumberbatch, the distress has been doubled as he buried both mother and grandmother on Monday. The two women died within hours of each other at the country’s main isolation facility at Harrison Point.
Adding to the immense grief from the losses for the 30-year-old St Lucy resident are the cumbersome protocols that prevented him from being with relatives in their dying moments or being able to view their bodies.
So emotionally upsetting is the ordeal that respected clinical psychologist Christa Soleyn has called for the provision of counselling services for those grappling with these losses.
In an exclusive interview, Kemar revealed that his maternal grandmother, 66-year-old Rosalyn Cumberbatch passed away on September 26. His mother, 47-year-old Karon Cumberbatch called to relay the news as she processed her own grief in the loneliness of the isolation facility.
“Imagine the pain of losing somebody that close to you and not having anybody around you to console you, plus you’re sick at the same time,” Kemar said of his mother’s experience.
“It was like a double worry, because you’re worried for yourself, plus you’ve seen your mother just pass away and then you haven’t seen your family members for days,” he added.
By the following day, without any warning that her condition was deteriorating, his mother also passed away and just like that, the two people who played the role of mother and father in his life were gone.
“Up to this moment that I am talking to you right now, the last time I saw my mother was when I put her in the ambulance to go to the QEH. I haven’t seen my mother since that happened. I ain’t see her in the casket, I didn’t see her insolation, I ain’t see my mother at all, period,” said Kemar, who was still visibly confused and upset.
“It’s as if when people die from Corona, they don’t exist. It’s like you aren’t even a person. It doesn’t seem like you’re a person, because people have loved ones, people that care about them and at the end of the day, these people are taxpayers and citizens of Barbados. They deserve better.”
The number of COVID-19 deaths recorded in Barbados has spiked significantly in recent weeks from around 50 at the end of August to 108 at the latest tally since the start of the pandemic.
During a press conference last week Thursday, Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Anton Best and First Vice President of the Barbados Association of Medical Practitioners (BAMP) Dr Adanna Grandison explained that people who die from COVID-19 remain infectious for some time, necessitating strict protocols.
Open caskets are not allowed, death workers must be donned in PPE [ Personal Protective Equipment] and victims must be buried as quickly and as safely as possible.
Still, Kemar wants to know whether there were no circumstances under which he might have been able to see his relatives before they died and at the very least, identify their bodies.
“This is a month that I haven’t even seen my mother. I literally haven’t seen her at all and I keep telling myself ‘this can’t be real’. That can’t actually be real,” said the grieving son.
“In a situation like that, you should have a room, like a visiting room with glass, perspex or whatever to separate you from the people if you’re saying we don’t want you to come into contact with the person… but you cannot realistically be telling someone that they cannot see them in their final moments,” Kemar added.
In an interview with this newspaper, Clinical Psychologist Christa Soleyn, who worked at the isolation facilities in the early days of the pandemic, explained that the type of grief to which people like Kemar are subjected can often stay with them for an extended period.
In addition to writing eulogies and bidding farewell during a burial service, she suggests continuous counselling for relatives as part of the country’s public health response.
“Lots of people are also suffering from survivor’s guilt and you may have had COVID and survived and then somebody else does not survive or you are here and your family member is not. And so the idea of counselling also being extended to family members is an addition to how we manage COVID,” Soleyn told Barbados TODAY.
“Our mental health has been collateral damage of COVID and so increasing the access to mental health services is going to be important in managing the fight against COVID,” she added.
President of the Barbados Association of Funeral Directors, Ian Griffith revealed that some in the industry are exploring the possibility of embalming COVID victims in tightly sealed mortuaries that are rigorously sanitised and the bodies placed in caskets outfitted with plexiglass.
“If you don’t do the necessary things and pay attention to the necessary protocols, then you find yourself in a situation where you can contract the virus and unknowingly, you can pass it on to your family members,” warned Griffith, who is Managing Director of Earl’s Funeral Home.
In the meantime, Kemar fondly remembers the bond he shared with his mother who, at the age of 16 brought him into the world and who he carefully looked after over the last two years when she was diagnosed with an underlying condition.
“She is one of the few people that I would have conversations with, because I don’t really talk a lot and I bear a lot of emotions inside, but my mother was one of those people that I felt comfortable expressing myself to and she would always express herself to me as well,” Kemar recalled.
He will also fondly remember his grandmother, a mother of five and one of the strongest people he has ever encountered.
“She was also a single mum, had a very hard life, her first kid at 14… you know the old time days,” said Kemar.
“She worked in the canefield picking cotton. I have seen my grandmother scale and bone 500 flying fish in a day and she used to do landscaping at Royal Westmoreland. That woman worked non-stop to take care of everybody and raise her five children,” he reminisced.