Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, various global restrictions on travel and socialising have kept many families apart – some for more than a year.
Four people who have not seen loved ones for months at a time have spoken about how such separations have affected them.
‘I still don’t have closure with my grief’
Laura Myers, 27, is still processing the fact that her grandparents died a year ago. Living in Sweden, she was unable to return home to Huddersfield in West Yorkshire after her mother’s parents, Sheila, 89, and Peter, 88, died within three weeks of each other in the early days of the pandemic.
“I still don’t have closure with my grief because I don’t have a physical memory of saying goodbye,” says Myers, who had to watch her grandparents’ joint funeral via a live stream. “There’s definitely a detachment to the reality of what has happened.”
Since then Myers, a freelance artist, has been desperate to get home. Not only to support and comfort her mum, Debra, but also to care for her dad, John, 70, who lives alone and had a mild stroke in the first lockdown. When travel restrictions allowed, Myers managed to fly home to spend a few days with her dad. But two days before she was due to visit her mum, the second national lockdown was announced.
“All I’ve wanted is to give my mum a hug and sit with endless cups of tea while reminiscing and sharing in our grief,” she says. In the end, they met in her dad’s garden for an hour in the pouring rain, “just to see each other’s faces”.
She adds: “It does feel like everything that could have gone wrong went wrong last year, and in the time when it’s been hardest to go home. There’s definitely a sense of guilt that comes with living abroad when you suddenly realise how powerless you are to help.”
‘My children write that they want to visit granny for every school project’
Neil Busby’s extended family is “extremely close”. Before the pandemic, his 64-year-old mum Mabel, stepdad Trevor and two sisters – Jayne and Keri – would travel from Dungannon in Northern Ireland to visit him, his partner, Lindsay, and their three children in Strathaven, Scotland, about every six weeks. They would spend long weekends and Christmases together, and have joint summer holidays.
“They’ve been a huge part of my children’s lives ever since they were born,” says Busby, 39. His mother survived cancer a few years ago and since then her only grandchildren have been “a major focus”. But the last time they were all together was January 2020.
“The children really miss the family [in Northern Ireland],” says Busby. Each time they are given a school project to write about what they want to do when restrictions are lifted, Busby’s children – Ruaraidh, 10, Angus, seven, and Mairi, five – write that they want to visit granny. “It’s always the same thing,” he adds.
His mum is also becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of contact. He says: “Every time there’s even the slightest hint of restrictions being lifted she starts sending me WhatsApp links to holiday accommodation.”
As soon as they have been vaccinated and travel is allowed, Mabel and Trevor will visit again, but the situation is complicated due to the different restrictions in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“The uncertainty about this is quite stressful,” says Busby. “You really take it for granted, being able to just hop on a boat or take a flight over.”
‘I try not to think about how long it will be until I can see them again’
“I miss them hugely,” says Niamh, 22, of her parents, Peter and Pauline, who live almost 4,000 miles away in Illinois, US. They moved there for work in 2015 while Niamh stayed in Glasgow to attend university.
“It’s heartbreaking to acknowledge I’ve not seen them in over a year now,” says Niamh, who has been working odd jobs since she graduated last year with a degree in English language and linguistics. This past Christmas – which marked a year since they were last together – was especially difficult. “It was quite an emotional time for all of us,” she says. “I try not to think about how long it will be until I can see them again, especially considering the much slower rate of vaccination in the States.”
While Niamh has Skype calls with her parents at least once a week and has other family members nearby, the separation has made her feel lonely. The first lockdown was especially isolating, she says, as many of her friends, and one of her flatmates, went home to stay with their families. “You’d see stuff on social media of everyone in their childhood homes, living with their parents and their childhood pets. It was really sad seeing that.”
‘You feel like you have to choose between your partner and your family’
The last time 31-year old Emma MacKenzie saw her family in Australia, the main thing on their minds was not the coronavirus pandemic but the devastating bushfires. It was November 2019, and friends and family were travelling to Byron Bay from all over the world to attend MacKenzie’s wedding to her now husband, Albert. “We were actually more worried that people wouldn’t get into Australia because of the fires,” she says.
But more than a year later, the main thing stopping MacKenzie, who works in communications and lives in Berlin, from returning home to Brisbane is the “inordinately expensive” cost of flights and hotel quarantine. She was offered a repatriation flight by the Australian government at the start of the pandemic but decided to stay in Germany, where she has lived for seven years. Not only did she have a job and a home to consider but, as a German national, Albert would not have been able to go with her.
“I could have been separated from my husband indefinitely,” says MacKenzie. “My gut told me to stay here and see how things play out.” It was a difficult decision, and one which she has been “going back and forth” on ever since, especially seeing the level of freedom in Australia at the moment. “There are points of envy,” she says. “We could have had such a different life this last year – one that might not have been as traumatic.”