The Namibian experience of Covid-19 has been unique, with a slow climb towards the current surge in confirmed cases and deaths. The country, however, shares in the collective global grief of losing its normalcy since March 2020. These developments may imply that dealing with death and mourning during the Covid-19 pandemic may prove difficult for post-conflict Namibia.
Terms such as lockdown, restrictions and curfew have different meanings for different people and may have taken on a fear-inducing quality as some people’s imaginations have been flooded with traumatising intergenerational memories from the country’s colonial past. The policing of citizens’ movements, the militarisation of streets, and recollections of the dehumanising liberation struggle mass graves and their associated infringements on human dignity and rights, are still etched into our collective consciousness.
Some people have responded to Covid-19 by anchoring themselves in facts and maintaining their connection with their diverse needs. These needs may include a desire to remain emotionally, spiritually, religiously or culturally grounded as the once distant Covid-related issues of death, grief, mourning and bereavement have become a tangible reality.
In view of this, information about how some citizens are dealing with death and mourning during the lockdown period for both non-Covid-19 deaths and Covid-19-related deaths remains widely circulated. There are accounts that highlight a potential for traumatisation owing to limits in fulfilling the spiritual, religious, ancestral or cultural routines that accompany the processing of a death.
There are also complaints that the rituals of mourning have become reductionist whilst they served the crucial role of offering support, enabling emotional discharge, witnessing, memorialising, negotiating for closure, and accepting the loss. Such disillusionment reveals the emotional pain of conducting burials during lockdown and this is especially difficult for those experiencing the stigmatised grief and burial of Covid-19-related deaths. Perhaps unintendingly so, the Covid-19 pandemic is proving to be anti-African in its consequences as illuminated by the recent bemoaning of the option of cremating C19-related corpses. This evokes reminders that black life and black death have been undermined throughout history and that now, black customs that place importance on honouring the dead are being threatened by Covid-19 (Canham, 2020).
Seemingly for most Namibians, espousing collectivism is not merely a way of life but a means through which to exist and this extends towards the act of laying a loved one to rest. Burial is therefore not the discarding of a corpse or the separation of the living from the dead. It is the symbolic medium through which continued bonds with the deceased may be healthily initiated. Serving as reminders of the finality of death, communal funerals may also safeguard against deterioration into denial and complicated bereavement.
There are different types of grief, with numerous possible responses by every individual. However, Covid-19 may have resulted in a collective anticipatory grief that is associated with the expectation of the dreaded inevitable and living in the unknown. It is important to note that even under normal circumstances, most grief reactions do not completely resolve but grow indistinct over time. It is normal for those facing a loss to protest the absence of the deceased in disbelief and to engage in behaviour that searches for them (Sadock, Sadock & Ruiz, 2015). The hope is that a transition from despair and detachment from the deceased may eventually result in adaptively restructuring one’s life to accommodate the new reality.
Grieving may leave little room for hope but there are non-linear models that can demystify death and mourning. The stages of grief model by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler include: 1. Denial: an initial shock and rejection of the news. 2. Anger: expressions of frustration and questions that highlight feelings of unfairness. 3. Bargaining: negotiating for a better outcome through actions that can undo the news. 4. Depression: typical depressive symptoms such as hopelessness and disturbed sleep. 5. Acceptance: understanding the inevitable reality and taking back power over the unknown, and 6. Meaning: trying to make sense of the event until appropriate significance is attached to it (Berinato & Kessler, 2020). It can be argued that rituals and burials may facilitate a transition between these stages. However, the compounded nature and altered processes of grief in Covid-19 may undermine this function. The above model can also be used to understand the loss resulting from C19 on an individual, national and international level. It may additionally require thinking about grief from an ecological systems perspective (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) and to empathetically recognise Namibia’s complex background when considering the collective psychosocial impact of Covid-19. Coping with non-Covid-19 and Covid-19-related death and mourning is possible and may include accepting that the pandemic has placed disproportionate pressure on both personal and state resources. Safe mourning practices that allow for the acknowledgement, expression and validation of grief are encouraged. It is easy to suppress grief and defer mourning through the unbalanced lifestyles that have accompanied Covid-19. However, talking about the loss in a reciprocal support network can be beneficial. Whilst some customs and traditions may be exercised once restrictions are relaxed, activities such as journaling and writing may be of immediate comfort. Allocating times and space for grieving with memories of the deceased can be initiated, with the support of technology where possible. Reputable scientific guidelines on ways to conduct dignified burials during Covid-19 are available. It is thus appropriate to advocate for ‘good death’ with freedom from avoidable distress, as opposed to ‘bad death’ that is laced with dishonour (Sadock, Sadock & Ruiz, 2015). Continuing empathetic consultative processes, that are aimed at finding amicable ways of balancing dignified end-of-life experiences and national regulations, is recommendable. Surviving Covid-19 and reaching post-traumatic growth are impending.