The news that my father had passed came in the form of a phone call on a Monday afternoon in August. While I’d been waiting for the call for months — he was terminally ill — I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of waking up with a father and hanging up the phone without one. Among the many initial feelings I felt, all overwhelmed with a sense of numbness, I had the strong urge to find and put on the only thing I had from him with me: a bucket hat, sitting in my bottom drawer. I sat on my bed for the rest of the day with the hat on my head, confused about what to do next. That night, I slept with it beside me.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed what it looks like to lose a loved one for many. While my father didn’t die of COVID, the restrictions in his dementia facility made it difficult and, for months, impossible for my family to visit him in his final months. The mandatory quarantine and travel restrictions in New Zealand, where my family is based, meant flying home from the U.S. for the funeral wasn’t an option. Instead, I watched the funeral over FaceTime, his hat in my hand.
During the first month after his death, the only consistent thing about my grieving was the bucket hat. Surrounded by friends that had never met him and unable to hold family, his hat sat on my desk while I attempted to get back to work, went with me on my walks or trips to the beach, and slept next to me in bed. While recording my speech for his funeral, I spoke it to his hat just behind my laptop camera, in an attempt to feel closer to the funeral and, ultimately, to him.
I wasn’t alone in using an article of clothing to help grieve. While on a walk with my friend Zach, who also lost his father during this time, I noticed that he was wearing a hat I’ve never seen before. When he explained that it was also his father’s cap, we shared a moment in laughing at ourselves for wearing our “dead dad hats.”
Dr. Alan Wolfelt, grief counselor and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, calls these “linking objects.” “They help link us to the physical presence of the person who died,” he explains. “They’re sort of temporary stand-ins for the person, and they help us feel closer to them, as well as access and express all of our normal grief emotions.” With hundreds of thousands of people losing loved ones from a distance during this time, and being unable to say goodbye due to the safety protocols or travel restrictions in place, Dr. Wolfelt says these objects have become a common response in the grieving process.
“With COVID, we can’t get together, so we’re struggling. We’re still grieving