Thanksgiving was one of Fausto Fontil's favourite holidays.
Though he lived in Philadelphia, Pa., where he worked at a home for people with disabilities, most years he'd help organize a gathering for his large, mostly Haitian-Canadian family, including his six siblings and many nieces and nephews.
This year, the holiday will feel very different. Fontil died in April from complications due to COVID-19. He was 63.
"He's always been this grounding figure for us. Our family is really hectic, we have really strong personalities, so I think whenever we went on vacation, like with 14 people in the house … I feel like he was always the person to balance all of that energy," explained his niece, Laurena Finèus.
Death at a distance
Finèus said the family struggled this spring with the sudden news of Fontil's death, which came just a day after learning he was in hospital.
"Everything happened so quickly and he was already gone," she said.
What made it even tougher was the fact that they couldn't gather for his funeral.
"It really hurt that we were not able to honour him by being there, [instead] attending online," said Finèus's cousin Jessie Simmons.
"We weren't able to grieve as we should. It was a wound that wasn't fully healed."
This summer, the 27-year-old musician found herself composing the words to a song she later realized was about her uncle. She decided to record it and asked Finèus, a visual artist, if she would create a cover image.
They decided to release it the Friday before Thanksgiving to honour the family's holiday get-togethers.
"I felt like it was a gift to my family and a tribute to my uncle, because he gave so much for his family. This was a way to honour him because he deserved so much more," Simmons said.
Though the cousins had never teamed up creatively before, Finèus said she was pleased they could create something beautiful together for their uncle, who the family believes contracted COVID-19 while working at the group home, a job he loved.
"Me and my cousin wanted to keep his legacy and philosophy as a person who always gave back to others. [We wanted] a way to reflect that to the rest of the world, this idea of positivity," said Finèus, whose piece reflects the chaos of a large family during one of their typical gatherings, with her uncle in the centre.
COVID-19 hits home
Her uncle's death has made the pandemic suddenly real for the cousins, who both graduated this spring from the University of Ottawa and have found work in arts administration and customer service.
Finèus lives with her grandmother, who turned 90 this spring. The restrictions prevented them from celebrating her birthday together, so instead the family held a car parade that passed by her window.
"It was the first time we saw her smile since losing her son. It was a nice thing to do as a family," Finèus said.
Simmons said though many of her friends aren't seeing the urgency of the situation, she takes special precautions, including keeping her distance from her grandma, even within the house.
"I'm really scared to get close to her. It has taken away that aspect of being close, and what's nice about living with her. But we try to get used to this, I guess."
A different Thanksgiving
Simmons said despite their usual traditions at this time of year, there are no plans for the extended family to gather.
"I think it's just best if everybody just stays home," she said. "It is a sad weekend. It's the first holiday that [my uncle] is not here with us, but also sad that we can't get together. But my uncle, he loved life, he wouldn't want us to be sad.... He would not want us moping around. He would really want us to still enjoy the beauty of life."
Simmons is hoping her single, Wisdom, helps others who may be struggling this time of year.
"I found healing through it. If I found healing through it, I believe somebody else can as well," she said.