The Particular Pain of Pandemic Grief

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“Don’t thank me, love. It’s just my job.” The nurse’s words were clear, firm, efficient. Just like her, in the two hours I had known her.

“He’s all right. He’s peaceful now.” That was the end of my conversation with the British National Health Service nurse in charge of the Covid-19 ward where my father was at the end of his life in England, half a world away from my home in California.

Hanging up the phone meant it was over. And so I stood, motionless, staring through now-blurry eyes into the vast expanse of what lay ahead. “All right” meant my father was dying; “peaceful” meant he was sedated. This was what I was supposed to hope for, just four days after his hospitalization with Covid-19. A peaceful death.

Her words echo still in my mind.

My father had always been a solitary soul, and yet here he was, forced into this final, unwilling form of solitude as the coronavirus overwhelmed his body in a rapid and irreparable takeover of his lungs. The work of the virus was complete, though his life was not.

The nurse had offered to arrange for a final goodbye with my father using the one donated iPad the hospital had for families of Covid patients to communicate with our loved ones — a piece of nonmedical equipment allowed into my father’s contaminated room.

I could see her blond hair and barely 30-something face, a ray of life beneath the long plastic face-mask that protected her from my father. Her arm, outstretched, was covered in her white translucent surgical gown, a thin veil keeping her in this world while ensuring that dad’s passage to what lay beyond was humane. The comfort she offered to him and to me put her in the proximity of this deadly virus.

By the time we said goodbye, my father was dying, preverbal once more, eyes sunken and searching. He labored on his outbreath, groaning in the slow, rhythmic soundtrack of a life ending.

But even when there are no words, there is goodbye.

He had always been a man of few words, at least through the humdrum of daily life. Dad loved the remote Scottish loch where I spent my childhood; more, it seemed, than me, or anyone in his life for that matter. Children were superfluous, an added track of daily spirit and motion atop the steady lap of the loch’s waters, the gray layers of mountain backdrop, the hauntings of the pub he ran for years.

He would, however, come to life with a bottle of gin and the ears of the local pub-goers. Daily, one of the regulars would make the trek miles along the one-lane, winding road down the loch to the pub, in full Scottish regalia — kilt, sporran and long, knee high kilt-socks with the red fleck of a garter peeking below the seam — and linger until the late-night hours, when I would hear the tenor of Gaelic expletives, a sure sign of a few too many drams.

In my preschool days I learned to count with the small five-pence tips I was given after delivering shots of whiskey to the regulars. I sat in the window sill, overlooking a view so breathtaking it makes me speechless to this day, counting my pennies, lulled by Dad’s presence and the singsong of a language now lost to me.

I marveled at how Dad would spin stories endlessly with the locals. I wanted to feature in these stories, or at least to understand them, but they remained elusive — a point of entry to worlds past, a space where he seemed that much more comfortable.

As I grew up and attended schooling of a more formal kind, Dad taught me how to drive — windows down, music blaring, my hand on his hand. Always a bit too fast on the winding, one-lane Scottish open road. He taught me how to cook — simple, slow foods, before it was a thing; to savor slowly the delights of the earth, to crack the pepper always a bit too generously, to keep the fat and the crisps close at hand too.

He taught me my manners and to be a rebel, all in one. Somehow these contradictions all made sense with him.

I took Dad’s rebel streak to heart one winter day at school when faced with the injustice of a headmistress who violently admonished me for stealing off with her son’s toboggan. When I dared speak back to tell her she was wrong, she yelled viciously.

I will never forget the gentle pride in Dad’s voice when he told me later that she had rung to say something just had to be done about my talking back. Of course, I did complete the 1,000 lines I was assigned — “I will not talk back” — as I was my father’s daughter, well-mannered and all. But I made sure my handwriting was unimpressive, barely legible; subversive in the only way I knew how.

I moved to Berkeley, Calif., in 1986 when I was 13, after my mother remarried. I would travel to spend summers with my Dad and his family in Scotland and — more recently since becoming a parent myself — had taken my partner and children to spend time. Scotland is still very much home for me, even though Dad moved to England a few years ago to retire.

In the final chapter of our life’s conversation, I spoke softly, calmly, tears streaming down my face as my Dad’s eyes revealed a distant place. His eyes gently lifted as I spoke, my voice shaking through the phone. “I love you, Dad.”

I had never told my father I loved him until he lay dying, body wrecked with coronavirus.

It had come so quickly, this window onto our life together. I said it again and again. In some ways, I was preverbal too.

Navigating the spoken and unspoken rules of a rigid society by finding ways to narrate and challenge its edges was something my father had demonstrated with deft wit and wisdom. Articulating love was not part of this. But it didn’t mean it was not there.

Now here I was, trying to narrate this closing chapter. He had given me the power of words, and now was the time to use them.

“You aren’t alone. We are with you.” There was nothing and a lifetime of unspoken words to say.

Pandemic death is particularly cruel. It preys on the vulnerable. We all hold a collective grief and loss in this pandemic.

But what happens when death comes? When the circles of Covid-19 close in so tightly that it wrings your heart?

The daily acts of service — “just work” — on the part of our nurses and doctors, janitors and funeral workers change the lives of those of us left behind even as they support dignity for our dying and dead. Those who make final words possible, even when there are no words.

Our rituals of grief are no more. These are now mediated through distance and must emerge in new forms as we feel the cut-me-to-the-core pain of grief in isolation, as we see masked coffin-bearers revealed over video livestream funerals.

We yearn for human comfort, yet we know all too well the excruciating cost that lifting distance too early could engender.

As we reconfigure meaning in our now-pandemic lives and dare to envision the necessity of a reconfigured post-pandemic world, perhaps we will understand anew what matters most.

I hope Dad has found a home for his gentle, rebel soul. Meanwhile, I will carry his spirit on as best I can. Perhaps by beginning with a story.

Sonja Mackenzie is an associate professor of public health at Santa Clara University and lives in Berkeley, Calif., with her partner and two children.