Grief in the time of COVID

Amy Ward: “We heard that Jay’s passing was peaceful and that two nurses held his hands, but oh, how we hungered to make sure the last words he heard were from those who really loved and knew him.” -promoted by Laura Belin

In early February, our family watched the news about the novel coronavirus. We hoped, as I imagine others did, that our family would somehow remain untouched by the pandemic. That was not to be our fate.

Many of the most powerful COVID-era images that I have seen were taken from New York City or Los Angeles: stark cityscapes that seem far away and nearly foreign. In May, we buried my father-in-law Jay at a peaceful suburban cemetery – not in a big city, but in our verdant hometown of Des Moines, Iowa.

I want to tell you more about this photo, the pain beneath the surface. I don’t want another human – friend or foe – to experience a family death and burial like this again. Ever. And yet I know in my heart that other families will, and that what we do at such moments matters tremendously. We have choices. We have options. We can make sacrifices and survive.

My father-in-law Jay Daniels was one of the kindest souls I have ever met. His glass was perpetually half-full. He was a veteran, had co-owned a successful family business, served his community in many roles, and adored his family. Though it may sound overly romantic, it was true: to watch Jay love his wife was to see a moon orbit a planet named Marlene.

In the last years of his life, Jay lived in a care facility to help him have the fullest and most independent life possible given his dementia. In early February, the facility restricted visitors to protect the residents and staff from novel coronavirus. This was a wise decision. Though it was hard to be kept apart, and equally difficult to miss so many opportunities for hugs, we took great comfort in knowing that Jay was safe, happy in his routine, and that all his needs were met. We spoke on the phone often.

That comfort was lost once we knew he was ill with COVID-19, and even more so when Jay died from it. Through the lens of grief, all the time spent keeping him safe in retrospect just feels lost.

We could not be with Jay during his illness in the hospital. We could not hold his hand, or put a cold washcloth on his forehead during the vicious COVID fevers. We could not bring him the homemade chicken soup he loved. We could only call the hospital for updates, to learn of the symptoms Jay was suffering and the failure of treatments to turn the tide. After a day or so in the hospital, he was too ill to speak on the phone. We waited and agonized, praying for peace in whatever form it might come.

When things looked darkest, we gathered as many family members as we could in the pre-dawn hours to tell Jay over the that we loved him. Not words whispered to him kindly at his bedside as we had hoped, but words said over the phone. That phone was helpfully held to Jay’s ear by a nurse, who was taking quite a few risks on her own. We hope that Jay somehow still heard us, knowing that hearing is often one of the last senses to go.

We were not able to be with Jay as he passed away. We heard that Jay’s passing was peaceful and that two nurses held his hands, but oh, how we hungered to make sure the last words he heard were from those who really loved and knew him. He did not have the beloved and familiar faces of family nearby, or any familiar faces with him at all. We could not give Jay the gift of saying that it was okay to let go, to give Jay assurances that we would persist when he was gone. And yet we were just six miles away and our greatest wish was to be with him. Such madness! How we yearned for the honor of seeing Jay’s last breath become air.

As so many of our family and friends are out of state, and given the safety concerns with COVID right now, as a family we decided that we could not safely hold any sort of proper funeral. So that our out of town family could grieve, we decided to stream Jay’s burial.

At the time of the funeral in May 2020, our hometown of Des Moines was number five on a national list of COVID hot spots. Jay lived his life according to the highest religious and ethical ideals, the highest of which is the idea of saving lives. We could not undo this work by risking the health of other mourners.

I’ve long thought that photos and videos of burials were rather spooky. Paging through my grandmother’s family albums, I wondered why funerals were ever photographed at all. Now I understand better how such images can be powerful, helping to bring closure in unanticipated ways.

This decision to grieve on camera wasn’t easy. It was both a blessing and a hardship, both because of the technical challenges and knowing that one of the most vulnerable and difficult moments of our lives was being recorded. Our discomfort was more than outweighed knowing that our family members could honor Jay’s life by watching this moment on a laptop or phone, rather than being there in person and taking health risks. We did not wish to deny anyone the closure of seeing the burial.

We do not fool ourselves that watching the burial online versus being at the grave in person was in any way easier. I imagine it was actually much harder to watch and yet not smell the same warm earth, not hear every sound made.

In the photo, you can see our beloved Rabbi David Kaufman and a kind cemetery worker. My husband and I are clinging to one other in our grief. Everyone wore masks, most wore gloves, and all kept their social distance. Our rabbi was taking a risk even grieving with us, as he had a quadruple bypass last August. As much as we were grateful for the presence of a rabbi who knew our family so well, we were mindful of the risk. You will also see a casket, a pile of dirt, and the red handle of a shovel. It is a burial scene, after all.

There is so much that is beautiful about this photo, particularly the respect for the health of others. There is also horrific sorrow. Not just because Jay had died – for at the age of 92, we mourn, but we also celebrate a long life, well enjoyed. Yet there is so much tragedy in this photo that you cannot see – trauma to the living – and still, we have no regrets about our decisions. We know we did the right thing for our family and for Jay’s legacy.

Saving lives is the most important Jewish value, above all others. We could not protect the lives of fellow mourners, so we did not have a funeral. It wasn’t safe to hug others or shake hands with the few who were at the burial, so we could not connect in this most fundamental and comforting of ways. It wasn’t safe to fill our synagogue with family and friends for a proper funeral instead of just a burial, so we persevered as Jay would have expected. We could not keep mourners safe for a meal of consolation, so we did not have even a small one. Yet we as mourners still hungered for those routine comforts and wished the life honors that my father-in-law had earned could be safely given.

I know other families have made different decisions – to gather despite health recommendations – but I ask that you understand why we planned things as we did. We could only honor Jay’s life by making sure his loved ones stayed alive, for what parent wants to be followed to the grave by his children?

There is little theater in Jewish burials to hide that soon you will be lowering a loved one’s body into the grave. There are no flowers to add cheer. The opening prayers provide a bit of buffer, but you know that the hardest moments are ahead. For us, it is important to face that grief head-on, in the most direct way. The closed casket is made of simple wood without embellishments or the illusion of cozy comforts for the dead. Next to the casket is a pile of freshly turned earth with a shovel nearby.

One of the most heartbreaking rituals in a Jewish burial is the filling of the grave. The cemetery workers lower the casket into the grave – always terrible to see, even though you know it is coming – and remove the gear around the grave itself. You see the frank hole in the earth that nearly matches the ragged wound in your heart. The mourners receive the shovel and then use the backside of the shovel to lower dirt into the grave. We do this to show both our dread and acceptance of loss. The sound of the dirt hitting the casket lid makes you want to come apart at the seams, but hearing it, you cannot deny the finality of earthly death.

As I watched my husband shoveling the dirt into his father’s grave, I wanted to scream from loneliness. All deaths are hard, all grief is merciless, but this was different.

I wanted to scream for the simplest comforts we might have given to Jay as he was ill, but could not; for the most helpful of comforts we ourselves could not safely receive from others after he died. That is grief in the time of COVID. I wanted to scream for all of the facets of saying goodbye to Jay that were right and honored his memory, and also for all of the facets that were agonizingly wrong.

What we have felt losing a beloved family member to COVID during the pandemic era is not unique. If your family has not yet been affected by coronavirus, I share these feelings with you so that you know our experience. It is not far away, it is not happening to others. It is happening to us.

At a time when our country roils with debate about how best to begin anew our way of life, I hope for all of us:

May accurate, easily accessible testing soon be available to all so that we can protect our loved ones.

May effective, lifesaving treatments soon be readily available to our loved ones who do become seriously ill.

And in the meantime, may those families who experience enormous loss find peace. We are still working to find ours.

Top photo of Marlene and Jay Daniels provided by the author and published with permission.

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: The facility where Jay Daniels was in assisted living is not defined as a “long-term care facility” by the Iowa Department of Public Health. Consequently, it is not listed as a long-term care outbreak on the state’s coronavirus website, and the number of residents and staff there who have been infected with COVID-19 is not publicly known. The same is true for many other senior communities that may combine independent living areas with wings for people needing memory care or long-term care.

  • Thank you, Amy Ward

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and images. They made me cry. I am so sorry for your enormous losses, not only of your kind and loving father-in-law, whose warmth is apparent in his photo, but of the final loving in-person caring and rituals that were denied to you by this pandemic.

  • The cruelty of it all

    How sad!

    How sad that we are denied what mental health experts tell us we desperately need in a time of crisis: human contact.

    How sad that in trying to stamp out the virus through isolation, we may be stamping out our humanity.

    How sad that public officials seem bent on ignoring the most insidious side effects of this medication, even when taken as directed.

    Reopening should not be positioned simply as choosing profits over people. It is far more nuanced than that because the future of human nature is at stake. We need a solution with that as top-of-mind, for the scientists and public officials.

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