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Grieving through a global pandemic

Much has been said about how digitalisation has improved the way we communicate in 2020. Yet, if there was ever a group that has perfected the nuances of digital communication, it could well be any immigrant community. On a video call in my kitchen I will ask my aunt to correct my technique as I fold koeksister dough during a baking session fueled by homesickness. My brother-in-law often calls as he drives home after a night shift, just as we sit down for dinner. On my commute, I listened to my godchild’s first recorded fit of laughter through my earphones.

As a South African living abroad I am often referred to as an “expatriate”. To me, this term merely implies the acute longing to go home, and to be at home. My story isn’t unique. Along with 820,000 other South African families across the globe, we steel ourselves against cultural alienation by citing complex reasons to justify the choice we’ve made to live elsewhere: economic stability, financial independence, career opportunities…

When these reasons no longer suffice, we get on a plane and fly home for a visit. I really needed that Qantas flight in 2020. I needed my mother by my side as I woke up from brain surgery. I needed a chance to say goodbye to my grandfather who passed away that same week.

I stared at my grandma’s text displayed on an unsympathetic screen: “I couldn’t even say goodbye to my husband of six decades. I could only press my elbow against his at the hospital entrance. That was it.”

Maybe it was grief, maybe delirium, maybe both, but I knew that a text or a call wouldn’t be enough to process this loss. With his descendants and loved ones scattered between Australia, Germany, the UK, and various parts of South Africa, I knew that a live streamed funeral would only serve as a painful reminder that we couldn’t come together to mourn the passing of our patriarch. I decided to compile an audio memorial service by collecting eulogies, in the form of voice notes, from friends and family.

Using these eulogies, along with carefully curated background music and sound effects, I crafted a well-rounded memorial service that we could all listen to simultaneously.

The audio format of a private podcast is a protective shield against judgment, nerves and fear, creating an environment where each person can grieve authentically: those who wail, those who stutter, those who laugh. From the intimacy of our living rooms, speckled across the globe, we said goodbye. Together. Yet apart.

They say you’re a founder if a problem that no one else has been able to solve has found you. I started Herklink (a portmanteau of remember and sound in my native Afrikaans) as a service to produce audio memorials for families who are unable to hold a traditional funeral due to the current travel restrictions.

Since producing our first audio memorial 5 months ago, we’ve helped 10 families spread across 25 countries find solace in a time of social distancing. Each family takes full ownership of the distribution via a secure web page. For two of our clients, we’ve seen a combined total of 1,078 audio streams to date. One of our clients revisited the pain of losing both a father and sister to suicide more than three decades ago.

An audio memorial is not a substitute for a physical funeral. Funeral practices are deeply ingrained in culture, with varied traditions reflecting a wide range of beliefs and values. Mourning the dead is an intricate part of the human experience.

In Australia, the companies we turn to for guidance have systematically dehumanised grief with their lack of transparency and exploitative costs. The funeral industry, with its monopolisation of death care and a broken watchdog system, preys on people at their most vulnerable.

Our mission is to provide an accessible platform for communities to reclaim grief. When my clients and their families stream an audio memorial service, their IP addresses across the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans create a map of grief on my analytics dashboard. It’s also a map of resilience, unity and care in a world that needs so much more of it.

It’s a grace and honour to finally understand what people mean when they say, “I found my calling.” To do God’s work is to give peace. If I can help people grieve safely, and give them peace, that’s what I will do.

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