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Loss in the Time of COVID-19

April 22, 2020

Story and artwork by Ann Vanderburgh of Baystate Medical Center Spiritual Services

When my mom died on a ventilator seven years ago, I was allowed to spend my nights in her hospital room. In her final two hours of life, after life support had been withdrawn, our family and special friends gathered around her hospital bed. Although she was unconscious by that point, we talked to her, we sang to her, and we did what we could to usher her through the final gateway. We were very fortunate.

None of that is possible now.

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In this age of COVID-19, families and their critically ill loved ones are separated. Severely ill people are suffering and dying largely alone, their families waiting in anguish at home. Although one family member is allowed visit as their loved one is actively approaching the end of life, much of the entire dying process is by necessity conducted in isolation. There are times when family members are too scared to come to the hospital at all.

The painful and enormous challenge of dying and death is amplified a thousandfold under the shadow of COVID-19. How can one possibly say goodbye over the telephone? We do, but how can that possibly be an adequate substitute for being in the presence of your loved one as they leave this world?

Imagine partners of decades dying in separate rooms, unable to connect with each other. Imagine a 40-yr-old mother or father dying, separated from their young children.

Those who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 are left to mourn in isolation. Hugs are impossible from six feet away. Families cannot gather in large groups for funerals or celebrations of life, cannot gather to share stories and tears, cannot find closure in the ways that we are used to. We mourn not only our loved one’s death, but we mourn the solitary way in which they, and we, were by necessity forced to face illness, suffering, and the great, final, unknown.

What can those of us who are still here possibly do to mitigate anything of this present anguish?

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In this time of profound desolation and dislocation, we are not powerless. There are ways that we can make a difference.

For others who need support:

  • Reach out to those who are grieving. We have so many ways to connect in the digital age. We can Skype, Zoom, make a phone call, send an email or text, or even write a letter.
  • Continue reaching out to those who are hurting. We probably all can think of times when a family member passed away, and we immediately received a plethora of cards and heartfelt words. And then that was followed by a large, long, deafening silence. Reach out regularly. Grief takes time, sometimes a very long time.
  • Drop off needed supplies to someone who cannot easily get them.
  • For those with a spiritual practice, consider the power of distance prayer. If we are separated from loved ones who are ill, we can pray for them from our home. If prayer is not what we are drawn to, we can hold our distant loved ones in our hearts, with love.

For ourselves:

  • It is important to try take good care of ourselves. We can set a routine, get enough sleep, eat as well as we can, find a physical activity to help release stress.
  • We can practice gratitude. In the midst of profound sorrow and devastation, there are small things to be grateful for. Perhaps a friend called us. Perhaps we called them. Perhaps the cat is sitting on our lap, purring. Perhaps we love the rain, or the sun.
  • Draw upon the sustenance of a spiritual practice. Consider the power of myriad meditative activities that bring light into the world. Remember the mysterious nature of the soul and spirit, outlasting the temporal physical body.

These few ideas are not original; they are aspects of being human. We suffer, we mourn, we persist. We can call up hope in moments of deep despair. Not every day. But each glimmer of light in the darkness matters.

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Additional Resources

There are abundant online resources around grief and bereavement in the face of COVID-19. Here are a few:

About the Author

After one lifetime as a teacher, Ann Vanderburgh is now an on-call chaplain and reiki practitioner at Baystate Medical Center. She is the author of In the Presence of Grace: Stories of Life, Death, and the Infinite which integrates her experiences at Baystate with stories of the end-of-life of her own parents. In her outside life she is also a math tutor, a profession which is much more similar to chaplaincy than one might ever imagine.