Bigg Gibbs Seraphin

By Macollvie J. Neel

Marly Pierrelys spoke with her father, Jean Yves Pierre-Lys, every day since she could remember. Sometimes, twice a day. One Thursday in early April, she called to check how he was feeling after being put on antibiotics for a lung infection.

“When I said ‘I want to come see you,’ he said the doctor said to stay away for 14 days,” Pierrelys said. “I said that’s the COVID. But he wouldn’t let me come, he wouldn’t let me see him.”

The next morning, a cousin who lived closer to her father called, saying the 72-year-old had died.

“I tried to make peace with it, and I still don’t get it,” said the daughter, a Brooklyn accountant, two weeks after the death. “Every day is a struggle.”

Another two weeks after that, the family prepared for the funeral of a cousin who also died of coronavirus.

“It’s one after the other,” Pierrelys said. “I don’t think I can handle anymore death anytime soon. It has been a very painful time. It feels like every month a family member passes away.” 

Grief and guilt abound

Every day, it becomes apparent from word of mouth, funeral home obituary listings in heavily immigrant neighborhoods, some data, and social media tributes that a high number of COVID-19 casualties occur within immigrant communities of color.

Many Haitian-Americans, like Pierrelys, are struggling with not only the loss, but the absence of the traditional cultural rituals that are no longer available because of social distancing. Some have turned to alternate means to say final farewells, including virtual funeral live streams, which can help extended families living across the diaspora feel better some measure of relief and closure.

Still, those are a far cry from such traditional rituals as veye, or wakes, memorial services and masses and graveside rituals — all centered around large gatherings. Wakes alone, usually held after a viewing or service in a funeral home, tend to draw scores of mourners to the family’s home for all-nighters filled with food and drink. Fond reminiscences about the departed, jokes, keening and crying jags alternately take center stage well into the wee hours of the following morning, just before interment.

“The whole rituals of death are impacted,” said Leonie Hermantin, a community activist based in South Florida, which accounts for half of the state’s known COVID-19 cases as of May 18.

“People are dying alone,” Hermantin said. “The dying alone is very painful, and [surviving] people feel guilty.”

Mourning from a distance

Many friends and family still feel compelled to appear in person as the proper way to say goodbye to a loved one, though they attend services while trying to maintain an appropriate distance.

When Ghislaine Jean-Simon died, her sons Edmond Monchais and Frantz Monchais tried to keep the final rituals contained to just their immediate family. At the funeral home, the family said, nearly 50 people came to pay their respects for the woman affectionately known as “Bobo” around her Flatbush neighborhood. The mourners sat at a distance from one another and avoided other physical contact — a marked change from Haitians’ customary cheek kisses and effusive embraces.

“We were surprised because we tried to keep everything small to be responsible,” Edmond Monchais said. “We understand the situation. When the dust settles after a while, maybe we’ll do something bigger.”

Drawing a group is not uncommon, according to a funeral director at Torregrossa Funeral Homes’ Flatbush location, which services many Haitian families. Because they are so busy, the staff there have asked families to bring only four or five people to identify the deceased before burial.

“The Haitian community, with such large families, they’re having a hard time,” funeral director Sylvia Rodriguez said. “Some of them don’t understand, and they break the rules… We lost two pallbearers [to COVID] and our receptionist is very sick. This is no joke, this is terrible.”

News of five friends dying, including Bigg Gibbs Seraphin, is why Hendy Dabel stayed in quarantine until he received his negative test result for COVID-19, the Brooklyn entrepreneur said. While Dabel waited indoors, he said, the only thing he could do was donate toward some funerals or call survivors to express his condolences.

“Guess what — I can’t attend the funerals,” Dabel said. “I isolated myself because I didn’t want to be the cause of [my grandmother] dying. I just couldn’t have that on my conscience.”

Virtual options and frontline stand-ins

Others who understand the risks of spreading the disease, but still want to show support, have participated in drive-by or drive-through funerals — where people in parked vehicles watch a hearse carrying the deceased — or attended services streamed remotely.

The family of Pastor Joseph Nedy Pierre — well-known for leading the Free Haitian Methodist Church of Bethlehem in central Flatbush — went with that option for his funeral service on Apr. 29. Working with Harmony Funeral Home, they streamed the hour-long service and cemetery burial through Zoom, connecting with more than 200 iPads, iPhones, regular phones and other devices.

On many of the devices, multiple attendees appeared on-screen from the same home, singing and praying from locations across the eastern seaboard and beyond.

“With Zoom, people definitely felt a little more comfortable,” said Evans Pierre, a son of the 72-year-old pastor. “Getting that in place, especially with a lot of family members in Haiti and New Jersey who couldn’t come, was good to have. They were very satisfied that at least they saw a service.”

People also turn to virtual calls and the phone during the final moments of loved ones they cannot see in person. In those scenarios, healthcare workers often stand in to grieve and to comfort.

“It hurts because they’re already sick and suffering, and they’re hurting because they can’t see their loved ones,” said Katianna Dumont, a patient care associate at a Brooklyn hospital who has soothed many patients in their final hours. “You’re basically a stand-in family, while their own family only be there over the phone, but physically, they can’t be there to touch them, hug them or kiss them.”

As a frontline worker, Dumont added, “You just pray with them, give them comfort, and be compassionate — that’s all you can do.”

Macollvie J. Neel, a writer and communications consultant, serves as executive editor of The Haitian Times. She is the founder of Comms Maven LLC, a consultancy that helps mission-driven professionals and organizations tell their stories in workplaces and media spaces.

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