How a Flight Attendant Became a Funeral Planner in the Covid Era

HONG KONG — Before she turned a funeral planner, Connie Wong was a flight attendant for a Hong Kong airline. The sudden finish of a profession she had cherished for six years introduced its personal form of grief, she mentioned.

It was one among many such losses skilled by residents of the Chinese territory. Hong Kong’s economic system started deteriorating in 2019, when a proposed extradition legislation set off months of fiery road clashes between protesters and police. Then, throughout the coronavirus pandemic, harsh and consistently evolving restrictions that hewed carefully to the mainland’s “zero Covid” coverage upended whole industries. Numerous companies had been pressured to shut, hundreds of individuals left the metropolis, and a few of those that remained needed to reinvent themselves.

When Cathay Dragon, an arm of Hong Kong’s flagship provider, Cathay Pacific, shut down in 2020 as journey got here to a halt, Ms. Wong was amongst hundreds left jobless. Accustomed to working red-eye flights, she couldn’t sleep at night time.

“Some folks misplaced their relations. Some emigrated. Others misplaced their well being — and never simply their physique well being, however their psychological well being as properly,” she mentioned lately. “It’s not simply Hong Kongers, however the entire world is experiencing this. It’s laborious to face. I’ve misplaced my job. But life will at all times convey options.”

At Cathay Dragon, Ms. Wong, 35, had usually requested to be assigned to flights to Kathmandu, Nepal, so she might volunteer there at a youngsters’s residence and animal shelter. The pursuit of one thing equally fulfilling led her to use final summer time to be a life celebrant at Forget Thee Not, a Hong Kong nonprofit group that tries to make dignified funerals reasonably priced to households in want.

She meets a number of occasions a week with households, in an ethereal room decked with flowers. As she helps them plan ceremonies, she suggests writing notes with reminiscences to depart on or inside the coffin, as a solution to present gratitude or let go of grudges as they are saying farewell. For the funeral of a 4-year-old, Ms. Wong embellished the seats with cutouts of the woman’s favourite cartoon character.

In some respects, Ms. Wong’s earlier job expertise turned out to be transferable, she mentioned. Much as she had as soon as discovered methods to placate passengers dealing with flight delays, she was now discovering workarounds for folks in far better want.

The adjustment was not simple. After her first few funerals, pictures of the grieving households replayed in her thoughts at night time. She might barely eat from the stress, and her hair started to fall out. In November, she took sick go away, which lasted for months. Her bosses requested her to replicate on whether or not this was the proper job for her.

Ms. Wong returned in April, as Hong Kong was dealing with its worst outbreak of the coronavirus. Hospitals had been strained past capability, and hundreds of older folks died of Covid-19. She plunged proper again in. When kin couldn’t attend funerals in individual after testing optimistic for Covid, she arrange livestreams and narrated the rites.

There are some days when she longs to be flying once more. But she says she has discovered a extra far-reaching satisfaction in serving to struggling households course of a loss.

“The impression of Covid pushed us to face actuality,” she mentioned. “We have to regulate.”

Although the pandemic all however grounded the aviation trade, Mandi Cheung’s day job as a safety guard at an plane engineering agency was unaffected. But he stop in March to change into a cleaner at a quarantine facility for Covid sufferers.

It was a probability to make “fast cash” as he saved as much as to migrate to Britain, he mentioned. The six-day-a-week cleansing job paid about $3,000 monthly, roughly $1,000 greater than his safety job had.

At the peak of the Covid outbreak this yr, Hong Kong’s hospitals and quarantine facilities confronted a giant overflow of sufferers. Mr. Cheung’s quarantine camp close to the Tsing Yi port, which has almost 4,000 beds, was one among eight swiftly constructed services. The expertise was extra harrowing than he anticipated.

Mr. Cheung, 35, was not allowed to drink water or use the toilet whereas sporting private protecting tools. He cleaned up bathrooms and used speedy take a look at kits day by day, worrying about taking the virus residence. His mom would let him in solely after he sanitized his whole physique at the door. (As the variety of infections plateaued and pandemic fatigue set in, she stopped caring, he mentioned.)

“Resources had been actually missing — the distribution of labor was unequal,” he mentioned. “I used to be stuffed with resentment as I labored. I stored telling myself that it could simply be for a few months.”

In the meantime, he had stored taking further jobs. In May, he put in six-hour shifts at a espresso store in his neighborhood after working in a single day at the quarantine facility.

Mr. Cheung had supposed to work at the quarantine heart for 5 months, however it closed in June as the variety of “VIPs,” as his group chief informed him to consult with sufferers, dwindled. He plans to work full time at the espresso store till he leaves Hong Kong.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Cheung ran a nocturnal espresso operation referred to as NightOwl, however it was troublesome to maintain financially underneath Covid eating restrictions. He hopes to open a comparable enterprise someday, after emigrating. But he’s additionally interested in new experiences.

“In the finish, I can be exploring a new world,” he mentioned.

As an in-flight service supervisor for Cathay Dragon, Connie Cheung, 57, had reached the highest rung of her profession ladder. Ms. Cheung, who shouldn’t be associated to Mandi Cheung, joined the airline, then referred to as Dragonair, greater than three many years in the past as a flight attendant. She had lately prolonged her contract after reaching 55, the retirement age for cabin crew.

She was caring for her grandson and her daughter-in-law when the airline shut down in 2020. She determined to take a collection of presidency programs in postnatal care, studying the right way to carry out breast massages and boil hearty natural soups. She began coaching to be a pui yuet, or nanny, for infants and a carer for brand new moms, and in 2021, she started her second profession.

“Now I’m a newbie once more,” Ms. Cheung mentioned.

She and a good friend, Wing Lam, 48, one other in-flight service supervisor turned postpartum nanny, commerce tips about the right way to handle germophobic moms and grumbling grandparents. They joke about how their modern suitcases have been changed by steel carts, which they haul from the subway to moist markets to purchase groceries for the meals they cook dinner for his or her shoppers.

When she misplaced her airline job, Ms. Cheung had been making roughly $4,500 a month plus advantages, like well being care. Now, she makes about $3,300 a month. Ms. Lam, for her half, misses the thrill of managing a aircraft crew, regardless of the stress and uncertainties that include each flight.

In May, Cathay Pacific despatched recruitment emails to hundreds of laid-off workers, asking them to reapply — for entry-level positions.

Ms. Lam holds out hope that the airline will rehire senior workers. But in the meantime, she plans to make use of her in-flight managerial expertise as a nanny agent, matching carers with dad and mom. She has began coaching people who find themselves new to the trade, together with former flight attendants.

Ms. Cheung is staying the course. Her calendar has crammed up as shoppers have referred her to different expectant moms. While the work is unstable — she’ll get no requests one month, then a number of the subsequent — she hopes it should quickly pay for household holidays.

She mentioned she might see herself caring for infants for the subsequent 10 years: “I’ve discovered my new course in life.”

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