Heartbreak at Christmas: SA families mourn several loved ones lost to Covid-19

Nivashni Nair Senior reporter
Georgie Coltman and his three children, Tarryn, Manny and John, are dreading the festive season without Patty Coltman, who died of Covid-19 in July.
Georgie Coltman and his three children, Tarryn, Manny and John, are dreading the festive season without Patty Coltman, who died of Covid-19 in July.
Image: supplied

Many seats will be empty at the Christmas table this year as most South Africans practice social distancing, but for the families of more than 24000, claimed by Covid-19, those seats will always remain empty.

Those, who have lost more than one loved one to the virus, are dreading the festive season.

“Days are not the same and there have been really difficult days. I had the closest relationship with my mother, she was literally my best friend and so most of the time I am overcome by grief just thinking about all the things we would do together and the conversations.

“I still send her WhatsApp messages and tell her stuff, and that makes me feel much better. There are special moments I miss about my sister-in-law too, but having conversations and laughing with them makes it all bearable,'" said National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Bulelwa Makeke.

Mirriam Conco would have celebrated her birthday on December 23.
Mirriam Conco would have celebrated her birthday on December 23.
Image: supplied

Makeke was already in mourning when her mother, Mirriam Conco, died as her husband’s sister had succumbed to the virus a few days earlier.

“My sister-in-law, Nolukhanyo Makeke-Kawa, passed on at the age of 57, on July 3. We fondly called her 'Khanyos' and she lived in East London. On the day of her funeral, July 7, my mother also passed on. She lived in Port Elizabeth,” she said.

Makeke now has to face Christmas and her mother's birthday without the pair.

“I feel tired, bruised. In fact, I have not been looking forward to this time of the year, partly because I have to deal with the fact that my mother’s birthday is on December 23. She loved birthdays and her own birthday was a time for her to feel special. She would even go to the extent of buying herself flowers and chocolates if no-one did, so I knew I always had to make it special for her.

“This year, it will be very empty and I don’t want to imagine how I am going to feel on the day.”

Makeke now also has to navigate her own recovery and hospitalisation after contracting Covid-19 last month.

“My own battle with Covid-19 gave me a chance to go through what my mother went through. I had the same symptoms that took me straight to ICU for a week, just like her, with shortness of breath and severe pneumonia. Thank goodness I made it out of there, when she didn’t.

“I am well on my way to recovery at home now. Thankfully, I am completely off oxygen, two weeks after I was discharged. My doctors had estimated that I would probably depend on it for four to five weeks. However, I get overcome by fatigue from time to time and I need to rest and take it easy,” she said.

“I have also been putting in some exercise, taking long walks around the neighbourhood to build the lungs and that seems to work well. I am under no illusion that it will take a while for me to get to full recovery, or close to it.”

'The memories are at times too much to bear'

For Georgie Coltman of Pretoria, the process of healing began by facing many “firsts” without his wife, Patty, on Friday.

“Our 26th wedding anniversary was on December 18. My son’s 20th birthday is on December 24, then it's Christmas and New Year’s Day. And soon, February 24 is my daughter’s birthday. On April 2 we would celebrate Patty’s 54th birthday. After that the next first will be the anniversary of her passing in July,” he said.

“We attended two funerals on July 10 and 11 in Port Elizabeth. The first was Patty’s brother-in-law, husband to her eldest sister. The second was her sister, Elizabeth Beukes. They shared a close bond and even though we were reluctant to go, that bond compelled us to attend the funeral.

“Upon arrival in Port Elizabeth, I had an overwhelming epiphany to return home, upon seeing the careless attitude of the community. Once again, the bond won the day. The sister died at home and though she was not diagnosed. With hindsight we are convinced that she succumbed to Covid-19.”

On July 15, Elizabeth's daughter informed the Coltmans that she had tested positive and on July 21, Patty also tested positive. Four days later, he took Patty to Steve Biko Hospital and a few hours later the hospital called to say his wife had passed on.

He later tested positive and had to be hospitalised.

After his discharge, Coltman and his three children decided to spend Christmas in solitude at a family favourite holiday spot.

“We decided to go to our most favourite place in the whole world, where so many good memories lie in wait, the Kruger National Park. Here we will confront and exorcise the demons that torment us, together as a family. We will be there from December 22 to 25.”

Coltman has discovered that his capacity to grieve his wife is “almost involuntary”.

“Everything, every moment, triggers memories and images of my wife: her voice, her laughter, her sense of humour, her loving nature. It floods my mind in an agonising way. The memories are at times too much to bear.”

'It will never be the same for us'

Someone else who is dreading this time of the year is Laurisha Beepath, who lost half of her family to Covid-19 in less than three weeks.

Laurisha Beepath's boyfriend, 32-year-old Ritesh Dookie, died on July 4.
Laurisha Beepath's boyfriend, 32-year-old Ritesh Dookie, died on July 4.
Image: supplied

Beepath, 30, tested positive for Covid-19 on July 4, the same day her boyfriend, 32-year-old Ritesh Dookie, died.

Her stepfather, Pranesh Sewparsad, died on July 14. Her mother, Sonitha Beepath, died on July 21, leaving Laurisha, her 23-year-old brother and four-year-old sister completely shattered.

“I honestly haven't been coping. It's affecting my work and life in general. I've lost interest in everything I loved doing. Some days I don't even leave my room. I'm truly dreading the festive season. That was our family time. Mum used to cook up a storm for Christmas. I miss her food and her smile.

“I can't even imagine how Christmas will be. I didn't even put up the tree this year,” the distraught Pietermaritzburg woman said.

She is grateful that her four-year-old sister hasn’t been asking about Christmas festivities.

“Ariyana is doing well. She talks about my mom and stepfather but in a happy way. We try to ensure that she is not missing out on anything, but Christmas for us will just be a normal day. It will never, ever be the same for us,” Beepath said.


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