COVID-19 grief

Angel of Grief statue, Notre Dame des Neiges cemetery

Mourning in isolation and the grief aftershocks to come

“Every number is a person, every person had a life and every life had family and friends.”

COVID-19, mourning in isolation and suspended grief

The day my father died I was supposed to see him. But after waking up with a terrible case of vertigo that left me feeling like the entire room was spinning every time that I moved my head, I decided to postpone my visit.

I called my mom, with him while he received the weekly blood transfusions that kept his acute myeloid leukemia in check, and told her I would, instead, be seeing them on Sunday. Hours later, I called back to speak to him, but, exhausted, he had fallen asleep during the tedious, four-hour session.

I never got to visit my dad that Sunday. He died later that evening, as he was leaving the Montreal General Hospital to go home. He started bleeding out right there in the parking lot and was transported back inside, where efforts to save him proved pointless. My brother called me as I was preparing to co-host on CJAD radio that night. He didn’t give me any details, but I knew from his voice that something wasn’t right.

I arrived at the hospital in a daze and was led to a room with his body. The hospital staff were kind enough to leave us in there for a long time as I slowly absorbed the finality of it all. I was haunted by my missed opportunity to say goodbye to my dad. The guilt from opting to delay my visit weighed on me for years. Even though I had spent the better part of that summer spending quality time with him, even though I had a valid reason for postponing, the remorse of that missed chance to hug him one last time ate at me. Six months later, when I finally mustered up the courage to write about him, I typed every word through a blur of tears. It remains both the most cathartic thing I have ever written — and the hardest.

Man is not made to die alone

These past few months, as the pandemic has wreaked havoc, I’ve found myself reliving some of that excruciating pain through the grief of others. I, sadly, now know far too many people who’ve been denied the most basic and primal of acts: the much-needed closure of saying goodbye to a loved one.

“L’homme n’est pas fait pour mourir seul,” said former Doctors Without Borders president Dr. Johanne Liu on Tout le monde en parle recently. I agree. I don’t think anything living is made to die alone. But I suspect that closure is equally important — if not more so — for the ones left behind.

Death is already impossibly hard and sometimes senseless to begin with. But this virus and its demands for social distancing, which prevent us from the comfort of rituals and physical touch, the deep, primitive need to honour those who have mattered in our lives, have now conspired to make it so much harder. Grief has been delayed.

Sitting shiva, holding a wake, sharing a meal with fellow family members and friends, laughing at a hastily put-together slideshow of old memories, joyfully dancing at a second line parade in New Orleans, drinking shots of Metaxa brandy in a church basement after a 40-day Greek memorial, all these are ways of mourning together. It’s what softens the blow. For so many people right now, COVID-19 has eliminated that possibility, too.

A daughter’s love

This column was initially going to be about my friend Rachelle Houde and her attempt to get her terminally ill dad Ronald out of Sacré Coeur Hospital. Ronald went into palliative care because he was dying of cancer, but he ended up contracting COVID-19. She couldn’t go in, and she couldn’t get him out. The cruelty of a terminally ill parent dying, magnified by a thousand — having them die alone; and you, on the other side, helpless.

One late Sunday night an email came in. “My dad died tonight. Thought you should know before you wrote anything. Thank you for caring.”

Alone, in my bed, I cried for a daughter losing a father that night, and for everyone who’s lost a loved one in this cruel way.

In her grief, Rachelle immediately did what she does best: used her words as a director of strategic planning to appeal to the government to prioritize palliative care. Action was quickly taken and it’s to her and her father’s honour that within days she was able to get a small 20-bed CHSLD allocated solely for palliative use, so those dying in palliative care didn’t have to die alone.

Sometimes you take the senseless and you try to make sense of it. Rachelle, like so many people I know, channelled her grief, her rage and her helplessness into something positive that would make a difference to others.

Grief suspended

I sometimes think that the entire world is living in a state of suspended grief right now. Without being able to mourn together, to gather at a grave site or at a funeral home, it all feels unsettled and unfinished. Daily government briefings pelt us with a barrage of numbers that so often sound like data, not deaths. This many fatalities, this many confirmed cases, this many in hospital, this many in ICU, we jot down on notepads daily… You sometimes need to take a step back and remember that every number is a person, every person had a life and every life had family and friends and highlights and lowlights and wonderful, quirky, unique little details we will never know about. People who, as New Yorker writer Lauren Collins recently wrote, “disappeared through a trapdoor of global disorder.”

The immensity of devastation in human lives is so hard to grasp. The stress of the uncertainty that surrounds us barely leaves us able to function, let alone collectively grieve for those now gone. How do you mourn people under quarantine? How do you find solace when you’ve been stripped of the comfort of bereavement rituals? How do you remember who they were when you can barely recollect how your own life used to be, eights weeks deep into solitude and social distancing?

Grief isn’t linear. It hides and stalks you and jumps on you like a jungle cat when you least expect it. When this daily human toll subsides and some semblance of normal comes around again, we’ll all have to come to terms with delayed reactions. Patients, families, healthcare and frontline workers will deal with PTSD and late-onset grief as they finally slow down enough to digest and process the pain that they witnessed on such a vast scale. Therapists will see a tsunami of sorrow as people’s mental and emotional health will have inevitably suffered.

I know people die every day. I know death is hard, whether you see it coming from a mile away or it yanks someone you love right out of your life unexpectedly. But this mass, global, solitary death… this is unprecedented for our times. And as we attempt to grieve alone, deprived of the people and the rituals that console us the most, we also grieve for a world that has — perhaps, forever — changed and will never reappear quite the same again. I don’t think we’ve even started that process. The aftershock will be something to behold. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.

For Government of Canada info on Coronavirus / COVID-19, click here.

To read the latest issue of Cult MTL, click here.

COVID-19, mourning in isolation and suspended grief