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Honouring Halifax's African Nova Scotian matriarchs in the time of coronavirus

How a tea party hopes to make up for lost time when it comes to community grief and celebration.

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Cecelia Gray (left) and Cynthia Colley-Murray have been planning a tea party to honour those in Halifax's African Nova Scotian community since COVID-19 started. - CAORA MCKENNA
  • Caora McKenna
  • Cecelia Gray (left) and Cynthia Colley-Murray have been planning a tea party to honour those in Halifax's African Nova Scotian community since COVID-19 started.

Grief and ritual normally go hand in hand. Across the globe, since people started living and dying, humans have been moved by the need to acknowledge death and move through it—often with the help of their community.

And though on the surface COVID-19's greatest crime is death, its greatest punishment falls on those left behind. Bereft and grieving, but forced to stay home, to be alone.

When the disease moved through Halifax's largest long-term care home, Northwood, it took away not just 53 lives, but the opportunity for those lives to be honoured as they normally would.

"Over the time of COVID it was so depressing and sad," says Cecelia Gray, whose 96-year-old mother and 87-year-old aunt were two of only four women on their floor who didn't die from COVID-19 at Northwood this spring. "It was so sad that we couldn't get to see our loved ones. Every day I was crying and crying."

But as things started getting a bit better in Nova Scotia, with cases hovering near zero for most of July and August, she started thinking: "what can I do to show solidarity that the community is there mourning with these people?" People who have either lost their lives or lost loved ones at Northwood, or in her community, since the lockdown started.

Gray decided to turn her beautiful Brunswick Street backyard into the setting for a serious tea party, "in honour of the girls that we lost and the ones that are still hanging on, the matriarchs of this community." What she hopes will be the first of an annual event will take place this Saturday, August 15, in the afternoon.

Teacups prepped and ready for their party guests. - CAORA MCKENNA
  • Caora McKenna
  • Teacups prepped and ready for their party guests.

Once she got the idea and an OK for support from her friends, she and other women in Halifax's African Nova Scotian community got to work. They started gathering supplies, getting masks for everyone to wear from Halifax's North Memorial Public Library, food from TapRoot Farms, corn from Noggins and chairs from the YMCA. Then there were dishes to gather and teacups to sort—which were carefully arranged stood carefully arranged in her apartment awaiting Saturday's event. 

The matriarchs they're honouring watched Gray and her friends grow up she says, always keeping watch nearby when they played in the neighbourhood.

"But we lost so many of this community. My neighbours here," says Gray, pointing from her backyard, "my lady friend over there," she points again, this time in the direction of a neighbour who died after COVID had swept through Northwood.

"And they're gone," says Gray.

When loved ones died, she and her family and friends couldn't "go and give them love and, you know, give support to one another the way we would, because COVID has broken us apart," she says.

Normally they'd have been taking food up to the home of the person or their family, gathering, organizing, remembering and honouring—all together.

"We're like a chain, one chain turns the other one," says Gray. But because of COVID, "the link was broke."

In March, the bereavement coordinator for the central region of the Nova Scotia Health Authority, Roy Ellis, told the Coast that COVID-19 had created a “worst-case scenario for community healing,” with limits on funeral attendance and cancellation of larger gatherings.

But with fewer cases and loosened restrictions, Gray hopes to make up for lost time.

The tea party will honour 15 matriarchs and two men who have died in their community since COVID started—making space for others who lived through the fear and grief to have a moment for some closure. "To ease and soothe some of the ladies who have gone through this," says Gray—who went through it alongside them.

It's a chance to sit down and have tea and crumpets or scones and just talk. To "feel together," says Gray.

Two days before the event, while the teacups were still stacked and sorted, Gray was rushing about in the backyard. Putting up a tent with the help of her friends, her upstairs neighbour Michael and her niece Sheelma Flint. Melinda Daye, whose mother Laura Daye lived on the same floor as Gray's mother and aunt at Northwood and survived—was taking notes of the names to be honoured as Cynthia Colley-Murray read them out.

They were all buzzing with the excitement of gathering with their community. A buzz that feels new and different since "this miserable virus", as Gray described it, changed our world.

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