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Gentili: The terrible art of mourning in a time of pandemic

The only uncle editor Mark Gentili had left passed away this week and like many Canadians who have lost loved ones at this time, mourning just isn’t the same

Zio Frank passed away this week. Those words are tough to write. He was the last uncle I had.

My cousin, his daughter, texted me late last week. It was 5:30 a.m. and she couldn’t sleep. “I have some bad news” was the crux of her message and “things are progressing swiftly.”

It didn’t come as a shock, really. Zio (or ‘uncle’ for you inglese) was in his mid-80s and had been dealing with a cancerous tumour since before the pandemic broke.

Back in the spring, it seemed that the cancer, while bad, was contained at least to one part of his body and didn’t appear to be spreading. Good news. Good news that only lasted for a few months.

Now, we know different. The cancer didn’t stay contained, as cancer is often wont to do. It metastasized, spreading to his lungs and into his bones. When my cousin sent me that text, the end was fast approaching.

It is hard to lose Zio, but, in the midst of a global pandemic, his passing really isn’t the hardest part, I’m afraid. No, the hardest part of his death is not being able to hug Zia Anna at the funeral and not being able to sit with my cousins over a long dinner and just be together as a family. Because, of course, we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic. And we can’t go to the funeral.

I’m not alone in this, I know. Like it has for every aspect of life, it seems, the COVID-19 pandemic has all but destroyed traditional mourning practices. We can’t travel down to the funeral and come back to work on Monday. If we could go, we couldn’t hug our loved ones.

Crying from a distance is a poor substitute for coming together as a family to celebrate a life well-lived, to tighten the ties that bind, to remember what it means to be part of a family.

And our family isn’t big, at least not anymore. Like tens of thousands of Italians fleeing the devastation that was post-war Italy, my father’s family came to Canada in the 1950s. The Gentilis made the journey from Sarnano in Macerata, Marche region. Zio Frank is from Sacile in Pordenone, in the region Fruili-Venezia Giulia. He met my Zia Anna in Windsor, in the Italian neighbourhood that grew up around Erie Street.

My grandparents had three children, my father being the eldest. Anna is the middle child. My father had two children, Anna had three, and their youngest sister, Lucia, had three as well.

When I was a child, going to visit my Italian relatives in Windsor at Christmas and in the summer was the highlight of my year. The absolute highlight. As a Canadian kid who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, I didn’t have much of a cultural identity. My Italian family gave me a sense of who I was. 

With their thick accents and loud voices, their ready hugs, basement kitchens, lush backyard gardens and huge dinner tables, I felt like I belonged, even though I couldn’t understand much of what was said.

Most of those relatives are gone now. I still have cousins and other extended family, but most of the core, those first-generation Italians who are the reason I’m here at all, are gone now. Losing Zio Frank, for me, is losing part of that connection to a country I’ve never visited and to a culture that gave me a sense of identity.

Zio called me ‘Marco’. I loved that. It made me feel like a real Italian, not some half-breed who couldn’t even speak the language. At Christmas, we always celebrated my Nonna’s birthday and my cousin Michael’s birthday at the same time since both were born in December. Zio, with his thick northern accent, always sang “Happy board-day” rolling that ‘R’ just the right amount. I’ll miss that.

Zio was a bricklayer by trade (find me an Italian family that doesn’t have one of those, I dare you) and he helped my parents build their house. Zio had a big loud voice (again, find me an Italian family that doesn’t have a dozen of those, I dare you). When I was a young child, I was a kind of afraid of him because of that voice, and because he could be a little intense.

Once he retired though, a different side of him seemed to come out. A softer side. He would tell these great stories. One, about a guy from the neighbourhood who showed up to a café on Erie Street with a woman Zio suspected was a prostitute, just about killed me.

I didn’t see my Italian relatives much after I left home. I moved to Northern Ontario, a long way from Windsor, and given my line of work, extended vacations have never been a thing for me. I’ve only been down to visit a few times in the past 20 years, the last time for a funeral, fittingly enough.

I regret the passing of the years and the fact that part of my childhood seems so distant now.

When I spoke to Zio last week, for what would turn out to be the last time, he sounded tired, not resigned with what was happening exactly, but perhaps at peace with it. His big loud voice, once so overwhelming to me, was soft. He thanked me for calling.

He called me Marco.

I’m angry this pandemic prevents me from saying a proper goodbye to him. I’m angry this pandemic means I can’t mourn in person with my family. I’m angry that so many other Canadians are in the same place I am. It’s not rational to be angry at a virus, I know, but I am angry anyway.

But more than that, I am sad. Sad that I can't be there, sad that I’ll never see him again, sad that I couldn’t see him one last time. And sad that I'll never again hear him call me Marco. 

Grazie dal profondo del mio cuore, Zio. Addio.

Mark Gentili is the editor of