Loss in the time of Corona

Nobody can argue against the massive effect Covid has had on all parts of the world in 2020 and that life under strict Lockdown was different from the life most of us had been used to. How it affected the world, how governments responded to Covid, and the impact on individuals, is a matter of intense disagreement – contentious and complex.    

Social distancing

As social beings most of us have tried to embrace the new way of being and communicating in the world. This is a wonderful take on some of the effects of Lockdown as seen through famous art works – Week 3, Summer 2020 and Group Chat have particular resonance for me! Although people have responded in many different ways, one of the common leitmotifs during this year has focused on the sense of loss, of grieving.  And although I write here from a purely personal perspective, some of my CoronaCoaster emotions, stages and reactions might ring true more widely. And while I look back on this time in terms of stages in grief, I do not in any way want to equate the intensity of grief and impact of loss during the CoronaCoaster, with the pain of those who are grieving the loss of loved ones, grappling with terminal illnesses and who have suffered broken relationships and other tragedies. 

Loss in the time of Corona

My primary loss was that of a successful flourishing business with all the resulting financial implications. And the suddenness of this was what was breath-taking. All forward bookings (some 190 nights) cancelled within a week. The ripple effect of loss of income for staff who have huge commitments and wider families to support, has been devastating. On a slightly different level, my identity, even down to the business name Liz at Lancaster, has been tied up with the guesthouse and the local accommodation industry for decades. And this took a severe knock. The inability to travel to the UK to see my granddaughter has meant missing out on direct contact during her 2nd year, a time that can never be caught up. But to put things in perspective, so many in the South African and African diaspora have had to face this kind of separation on an ongoing basis. 

Basket ball in Alex in February 2020

A lot of my way of “being in the world” was to be active and “out there” in Jozi – connected and connecting, keeping up with culture, art, heritage, urban renewal, interesting tours and the new directions of this fast-paced city.  All this shut down in the initial Lockdown phases.

Plus I yearned for social contact with like-minded friends and the dynamic pulse of a live group conversation around a table where sparks are ignited into full-blown fiery passionate interchanges or silly frivolous laughter and humor – both of which feed the soul in rich and different ways; ways that Zoom, as a mode of connection, suppresses and disallows. Like a large townhall meeting, (or horror of horrors – a Residents’ Association meeting), where attendees have to raise their hands to speak and body language, eye contact and group dynamics are denied, the necessary formalized requirements of the Zoom format, stultify and stilt rather than allow for an ebb and flow. 

The Last Supper via Zoom

And now I look back over the 8 months since the virus first hit South Africa, and at some of the emotions, feelings and reactions, many of which echo the well researched stages of grief and loss

Shock and disbelief   

My initial reaction was the classic one of numbed shock – first when the tsunami of cancellations of forward bookings came in, and then with the declaration of a National State of Disaster (16th March) and the president’s address to the nation to announce Lockdown Level 5 from midnight on 26th March. 

The cycle of grief

Often stages of loss and grief are mapped in clear infographics.  But I think my Coronacoaster tended to look more like this … and often many responses all in one day.

My Coronacoaster

Anger and frustration   

We are all in same boat
And what new skills did you learn during Lockdown?

Of course, there was anger and frustration – at those who said this would be a good thing for “the environment”, for “slowing down the pace and pressures of life”, for “appreciating the important things”. Look at how the Europeans choreographed Broadway hits in their streets, or sang opera arias from their balconies – ‘This is what community is about”.  Sorry … but banging pots (the Le Creuset Wrist) and the vuvuzela cacophony like giant elephant farts, all from behind high walls, didn’t quite cut it for me. 

My emotional spectrum included despair, disorganization, panic, emotional outbursts, and even shame … that I was not learning a new language or making banana bread, or creating a visual journal , or … just …. being nicer.   

Guilt and pain 

And there was guilt and pain. Guilt that so many in South Africa including staff here, have so much less buffering and fallback; that with relatively so much, what right have I to be anxious and concerned, when so many have no home, no job, no food?  And pain for this suffering. A useless emotion but I think a natural one? Guilt at not seeing things in perspective: for all around to be safe, healthy and Covid-free was number one in the grateful diary. To have 2 of my 3 grandchildren close by was another for the grateful diary – my son, daughter-in-law and 2 grandsons stayed at Liz at Lancaster for the first 2 months of lockdown. 

Dialogue and Bargaining

Some positives

Then to counter the feelings  of Anger and Frustration enter Dialogue and Bargaining: “if I make the best of this, it will all be positive and work out OK”.  So we did laps around the property for exercise; we played hopscotch in the driveway;  I contributed in miniscule ways to community projects.  All this “making the best of a shitty time” echoed the world trend of “seeing the positives” and “hearing the birdsong”.  Do you remember the videos of cities being reclaimed by animals: wild goats in Wales; penguins in CapeTown; boars in Barcelona; and of course the wonderful satirical take on a crocodile in a Venetian canal.

At one stage during the lockdown months, What’s App groups were filled with “Our-family-has-talent” videos: fathers and daughters in operatic duets; the delightful rendition by a UK family of  “One Day More” from Les Misérables; virtual choirs, orchestras and a capella groups. As well as the revival of quirky creative videos like the delightfully mischievous Beethoven’s 5th or moving enactments of Caravaggio’s  paintings, I loved the challenges from the Getty Museum and the Rijksmuseum amongst others, to recreate famous artworks.  We intended to try a take on  Penny Siopis’ Melancholia but maybe I was a little too ambitious!  Butternut, onion, garlic and ginger would have been writ large in our recreation of this banquet! 

Penny Siopis’ Melancholia


Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” would have been more manageable!

And then there was that bad black monster: Depression.  Days of weeping; withdrawal; incapacity; detachment.  It’s human nature to cope with stress and anxiety through comedic light relief.  Social media mirrored much of the zeitgeist in moments of satire and parody: loners lifting a glass of wine to toast themselves in the bathroom mirror; some very funny take-offs of indoor exercise routines; plus puns about needing to “flatten the curve” (the tummy, not hospital admissions) and “social distance” from the fridge.  There were jokes about disguises, ruses and excuses for escaping from the house: “what outfit shall I wear when I take out the garbage?” (Mr. T. and Liz competed to take out the garbage!) And ironic references to travel and commuting plans – maps of  public transport showing routes from kitchen to balcony; passport stamps recording the crossing from one room in a house to another; the new office dress code – collar and tie with tracksuit bottoms and sheepskin slippers; and how one needs a village to raise a child, but a vineyard to home-school a child.  


Then came another slightly different phase from bargaining – that of testing, of finding workable ways, however small, to cope with this mad new world. We continued to focus on tight budgeting in the business; the business model was rejigged to one of combining traditional short stays with longer stays (reduced rates and lesser service levels); Catherine and Thandie started to work for others in the neighbourhood on an ad hoc daily basis; I experimented with vegetarian recipes, embarked on virtual drawing classes … some stimulation of my long forgotten and atrophied right side of the brain – and played more bridge on-line.  But …… 

Enter Acedia 

Acedia “arose directly out the spatial and social constrictions that a solitary monastic life necessitates. These conditions generate a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate. Together these make up the paradoxical emotion of acedia.”

In the last throes of 2020 I think all at Liz at Lancaster, except for Thandie, suffer from a bit of acedia  – a state which is neither boredom, nor depression but a listlessness and lack of focus.  I felt a bit better when I read the article Great Exhaustion of 2020 by Branko Brkic, the intrepid editor of our amazing Daily Maverick.  (We thank you daily, Daily Maverick, for your ongoing brave, thorough, relentless, investigative journalism.)

I’ve been feeling terrifyingly tired of late. Went to the doctor, he said all your results are fine. No need for vitamin B shot, even. Stress less. Rest more. And while it is a tad comforting that biochemically I’m fine, it still didn’t remove the dread of struggling to string the days together without having to hibernate for hours at a time.  But I hear the same from my loved ones. Then, one by one, almost all of my close friends and associates started revealing that they too were struggling to make it through the day and felt numb as they woke up. That notion of mass discomfort, and barring the possibility of mass poisoning by a substance that is yet to be defined by modern diagnostics, left me with only one conclusion as to the culprit behind all of this.  It is not us. It is you, the dreaded, horrible, hope-never-to-see-you-again, 2020 AD.

Meaningful life: our wish for 2021 

According to the research on grief, the last phase restores empowerment; security; self-esteem and meaning. Writing this blog is a good sign! And as I mentioned earlier, Thandie has set her goals. She has undertaken a carer’s course – both her 9 weeks theory and her 168 hours practical are nearly behind her. What focus and goal setting! Well done Thandie. 

Several of our regular guests have returned to stay with us since the lifting of strict lockdown restrictions, but a full return to “business as usual’ is not yet possible for the travel, tourism and accommodation industries. Many professions and enterprises can rejig their business models to provide services on-line (teaching, legal, accounting, consulting, doctors, gym instructors). Of course I.T. took off (with increased demand for working from home), and essential services like plumbers, electricians, etc. continued to keep heads above water.  But accommodation (and airlines, cruise ships, hairdressers and beauticians, amongst others) are sectors which CANNOT provide on-line remote service!  

However, we all look forward to a full meaningful life in 2021 with a guesthouse bursting at the seams with new and returning guests. 

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