Shock, panic and boredom were the prevailing emotions in the early months of the pandemic. Now it’s the grief, descending slowly, with which we must reckon. The sense of glacially negotiating an unbearable trauma in a world turned upside down is captured in RTÉ’s respectful and quietly torrid new documentary, Love and Loss in a Pandemic (RTÉ One, Monday).
This is a film that essentially makes itself. The job of the producers is to get out of the way and allow the families of those who have died from Covid-19 tell their stories.
These accounts arrive at a clip that threatens to turn into a deluge. There are moments when there is a real risk of being desensitised, such is the sheer scale of heartache. That this never happens is a testament to the film-makers. But even more so to the bereaved, who tell their stories unflinchingly and with tremendous humanity.
What is striking is the sheer breadth of individuals taken by the virus. Eileen O’Neill, from Loughlinstown in Dublin, was a spry 88-year old with a fondness for mink fur and high-heels and who climbed mountains even in old age. Catherine Hickey (51), worked on the household staff at St Luke’s General Hospital in Kilkenny . And Dr Syed Waqqar Ali was 60 and treating Covid-19 patients at the Mater Hospital in Dublin.
“Dad are you sure it’s safe? Maybe you should stay at home,” daughter Samar Fatima Ali (also a doctor) recalls asking her father. “He would tell me ‘no – it’s something I need to do’.”
In the age of Covid, a family’s trauma does not necessarily end with the death of their love one. Michael Doyle Jr remembers his father, Michael Doyle Snr, being buried alone with just a piper. He tries to look on the positive side by reminding himself his father is now with his mother. “It was a really nice funeral,” he says. “The most beautiful funeral.”
Love and Loss in a Pandemic concludes with Eileen O’Neill’s daughter, Siobhán Cullen, setting a tea-light on a lake and watching it drift over the water. “Grief has been delayed because of the circumstances surrounding the death of someone from Covid-19,” she says. “I don’t want my mum or the others to be just remembered as numbers.” It’s a heartbreaking conclusion to a documentary that may in some small way help the bereaved process their pain.