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.”
Neel has planned and implemented communications strategies for Fortune 500 companies in her roles as both a management consultant and an in-house advisor to senior leaders. She started her career as a reporter for The Haitian Times and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Neel also contributed to the award-winning "Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City" radio documentary and its companion blog.
Neel holds an MBA from Florida International University and a BA in Business Journalism from Baruch College of the City University of New York. She lives in Brooklyn.
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