'It's the wrong last chapter': Charlene White mourns the loss of her great-aunt to coronavirus

  • Words by ITV newsreader Charlene White

It was my other half Andy who first noticed that there was a marked difference in our experiences of coronavirus. It was the start of the first week of lockdown and by that point I had several friends and family who’d been showing signs.

Conversely, none of his family and only one of his friends had showed signs. I was so used to picking up the phone to the news of someone else having signs or being rushed to hospital that it had become my normal.

So much so that I’d assumed everyone was going through the same thing. Figures released this week about the number of ethnic minority victims – especially in London -- shows that’s simply not the case.

My brother-in-law John was the first to show signs. He’s a teacher and just before the schools closed, he developed a cough. He’s asthmatic, so my sister took it seriously from the start.

They stayed home, took paracetamol, ate lots of fresh fruit and veg when he felt up to it and tried to track down some high dose Vitamin C tablets. He then started showing other signs and a high temperature, my sister kept trying to get through to 111.

After a couple of days, a doctor finally called back and said if he experienced chest pains they were to call an ambulance. Two nights later – he was blue lighted to Lewisham hospital.

Charlene's cousin Pat became very ill with Covid-19 but pulled through.

My cousins also started showing signs, after going to a Soul Weekender on Hayling Island in early March.

My cousin Pat became really ill… but let’s not forget that routine testing wasn’t happening -- so she didn’t know for sure that it was Covid-19. My great-aunt Dell was keeping an eye on her and then one night her breathing became so laboured that the GP called an ambulance in the middle of the night.

She was taken straight to ICU at St. Thomas’. Two days later Aunt Dell collapsed – she was also blue lighted straight to ICU.

My Aunty Eleanor rang me in tears to tell me, the seriousness of Covid-19 had landed on our doorstep, kicked open the door and was taking down people we knew and loved. This included the mother of a family friend who’d been taken into ICU and later died, and the housebound mother of one of my best friends – who also later died.

This was the second week of lockdown.

Charlene White, centre, pictured with her brother-in-law John, left, who survived coronavirus, and her sister Jade.

It got to the point where I started to dread the phone ringing, or a text flashing up on the phone.

London is the epicentre, and this is where my family and friends live. My dad called to say another family friend had been taken ill and died.

One of my mum’s closest friends texted to say her husband was showing signs.

Hours later he too was taken to Lewisham hospital in an ambulance, and into a High Dependency Unit for oxygen. Another friend’s father died from it last week. You start going to sleep feeling sick to the pit of your stomach frightened about what a new day will bring.

But then there are moments of good news, kindness, and glimmers of hope. The care the NHS staff have given has been beyond words. My brother in law was finally discharged, and my cousin and aunt were moved out of ICU and onto a ward. Pat started physio. Aunt Dell was able to say a few words on a video call via a nurse. We felt hopeful.

Then Aunty Eleanor rang unable to even speak she was so broken.

A second wave of the virus had killed my Aunt Dell. I put the phone down and started making calls to let the family now here, Jamaica, America, DR Congo.

Calls I made with a strange air of detachment. I loved my great-aunt. She was the youngest 82-year-old I know. She loved to travel the world. I was on holiday with her in Rwanda for a family wedding a couple of years ago. She was off to Cuba in September. She wasn’t meant to go like this.

One of my cousin’s called it “the wrong last chapter” and she was so right.

My detachment wasn’t because I didn’t love her. It was because I don’t know how to grieve if my family isn’t together. That’s how Caribbeans do death.

We gather. We drink copious amounts of booze. We laugh. We cry. We play music. We dance. We play Dominoes. We pray. We eat. My god you eat a lot – everyone brings a dish. That’s how we show love.

You do that everyday from the day the person dies, until you bury them. With a big all-night celebration called a “Nine-night” -- on the 9th night after someone has died. And a funeral of fewer that 100 people is seen as small.

THAT is how we grieve.

So to have none of that, just silence. Lockdown silence. To not even be able to hold my siblings, my dad, my cousins, my aunt. That’s not grief for me.

But 10 of us will be allowed to go the funeral, so at least we’ll have that. Socially-distanced grieving. Honestly, the whole thing is cruel in every way.

As I write this, today is one week since someone I know has been blue-lighted to hospital or died because of this awful virus.

We’re still in lockdown, so do I dare become hopeful? I kiss my family every morning thankful that we’re still healthy. Right now, you just have to take each day as it comes.