Not so long ago the only way to enjoy milestone events was to be there in person. But the last few years have shown us the wonders of tech can help us stay connected. Here, three people talk about the major life events they experienced over screens.
Whenever we take a moment to look back on our lives, we often tend to do so in the form of milestone events. Many are joyous celebrations, like birthdays, graduations, weddings, and anniversaries, while others are more solemn occasions, like funerals and wakes. The ceremonies and rituals that often accompany these moments have changed a lot over time and can vary between cultures, but the one thing that ultimately unites them is people: friends, families, colleagues, and neighbours, all coming together for a single purpose. It’s why even in our busy, seemingly hyperconnected lives, ceremonies remain as important as ever, reminding us of our deeper connections to those we love the most.
But when Covid-19 hit, these ceremonies we knew and loved suddenly came to an unexpected halt. Gone were the halls packed with wedding guests, or restaurants brimming with birthday diners; the threat of Covid-19 meant we had to stay apart and keep within our close-knit bubbles. One NZ reports that broadband and fibre usage in their customers’ “busy hour”, where they see peak usage, has doubled in the last four years. This peak usage has grown from 600 gigabits per second in 2019 to 1,200 in 2023, as more people move aspects of their lives online due to lockdowns and growth in technology.
While overall growth in internet usage was steady, One NZ saw rapid peaks each time the country headed into another lockdown and people settled in to more time at home. But it wasn’t just our regular daily lives that were upturned by the pandemic – some of our rarest, once-in-a-lifetime occasions took an abrupt blow too.
In much the same way we adapted to things like work and school in the pandemic era, so too did our capacity for commemorating life’s major events. At the centre of this was technology and the internet, which enabled us to connect in completely new and uncharted ways. And while this modern form of connecting didn’t always make up for the absence of gathering physically, they provided us with an invaluable tether to our loved ones afar, even in the most trying times.
Three years ago, Jess Jackson was preparing for one of the biggest days of her life. Wedding guests had been invited, a venue had been booked, as well as all the other ceremonial flourishes that would normally go along with walking down the aisle. But when Covid-19 emerged, everything changed. Hoping the situation would improve in the next year or so, the decision was made to postpone the wedding. But as a lot of people in similar circumstances soon found out, things weren’t looking up anytime soon.
“We’d hoped for this big wedding, initially with 80-90 guests, and every Monday we’d be waiting for the updates to see if we could make it happen, and every week it was just devastation. I was definitely very emotional at the time at not being able to really plan anything.”
By late 2021, Jackson and her partner were reluctant to postpone the wedding any further. At the time, Auckland was in alert level three which allowed just 10 people to attend. When restrictions began to slightly ease from October, it meant she was able to invite a small handful of extra guests, including a friend to act as videographer.
“Initially we had no plans for a livestream because we kept holding out hope we’d be out of lockdown. Then a week before the wedding, we realised it wasn’t going to happen and that we needed to find a way to make things work. So we ended up organising one of our friends to come down on the day and video the wedding live for everyone to see, which really was the best decision we made.”
“In the end, it was a beautiful day and I got to spend it feeling loved with everyone sending videos and photos of them all dressed up in their backyards drinking champagne. Our friends and family were still able to be part of the day, even those who weren’t initially invited and wouldn’t have been able to see the wedding if we didn’t livestream it.”
Although it was gutting to miss out on the full wedding experience, Jackson says she appreciates she was able to still connect with her loved ones remotely. And with the livestream being recorded, it’s also given the couple a valuable memento allowing them to rewatch and relive the day.
“It was wild but it was still so special. Everyone wanted to make sure that we knew they were watching and that they were there, even if they couldn’t be there in person.”
A career beginning
Being admitted to the bar is a significant event in the life of every intending lawyer. Not only is it a court proceeding which you need to go through in order to be able to practise, but it’s also a celebration – a ceremony marking the end of years of formal study and the start of a new chapter in your professional career.
Normally, an admission takes place at the high court along with your “moving counsel” (a practising lawyer who will “move” that you be admitted) which is presided over by a judge and a handful of family members in the audience. Often there are oaths, speeches and signings involved, but for Auckland-based lawyer Anna Humphries – who was admitted to the bar in November 2021 – Covid-19 restrictions meant her experience was a little different than usual.
“Because the courts weren’t open yet, the admission took place over Zoom,” she says. “The judge was sitting in the high court, and we were sent a link to join the meeting, as was our moving counsel. There was also another link we could circulate to friends and family so they could watch.”
“I went over to my mum’s house to do it as I thought it was good to be with family. So I sat upstairs in my brother’s room in full wig and gown while my family sat downstairs watching on the TV. Afterwards I went downstairs and had a glass of bubbles and I took pictures, but at my mum’s house instead of outside the high court.”
Humphries admits that although the virtual ceremony was somewhat disappointing, especially after more than five years of hard work and study, she says one silver lining was that more people were able to watch the ceremony than usual, including both her parents as well as colleagues at her firm.
“I know someone who ended up flying down to Wellington, which opened up a lot sooner than Auckland did, so they could get an in-person admission. But for me, getting all my family down there just wasn’t practical. It was important my family to be with me for that moment, which is why I decided to do it online.”
While losing a loved one is always difficult, losing a loved one during Covid proved to be especially hard. Sherry Zhang experienced that heightened grief first hand when her maternal grandmother passed away in 2021. As her grandmother was based in China, which enforced some of the toughest pandemic restrictions anywhere in the world, travelling to the funeral simply wasn’t an option – a reality which devastated her mother the most.
“It was really important for my mum to be there, and I think as the youngest daughter she felt a lot of guilt and shame she couldn’t make it,” she says.
While her parents held out some hope that restrictions might be lifted by the end of the mourning period (which, in Chinese culture, generally lasts around 49 days), eventually there was no choice but to hold the funeral virtually. As it’s important for the deceased’s loved ones to express their grief, namely in the form of performing the rituals and prayers associated with Chinese funerals, Zhang’s mother also performed these back in New Zealand which was filmed for other family members to witness as well.
“We basically had to do a ritual in the backyard with my dad live streaming my mum doing the prayers back to family in China so they could also see the processes we were doing. So there was a bit of back and forth involved. We could see them offering bows, prayers, and incense from that side, while they could see us doing the same on our side.”
While this virtual alternative didn’t make the loss any easier, Zhang says being able to connect with the funeral virtually was still important as part of her family’s grieving process. Earlier this year, her mother was finally able to travel to China, something which she believes helped her mother get a sense of closure.
“The whole experience was definitely bizarre, but it was the best we could do at the time given the circumstances,” she says. “I think it would’ve been even harder [had we not had that streaming element]. We couldn’t go back physically but at least there was this. At least it was some way of showing up.”