How to grieve in a no-contact world?
Published in the Duluth News Tribune
One of the hardest things I knew I had to do after my 61-year-old brother passed away from tongue cancer, was to tell my 91-year-old mother. She was a resident at the Court Manor nursing home recouping from a fall the previous September. With her broken hip and arm, the doctor said that mom would probably never walk again. As Mom fought her way back on her feet, the idea that she could go back home was becoming more of a reality. My brother had lived with my parents for the past twenty years and had taken care of Dad through his dementia. When Dad passed away in 2013, it became the Mom and Lou team. As Lou got sicker, and Mom got stronger, I thought getting them back in the same household would benefit both of them. From what the oncologist said, I thought my brother had at least one more year.
The evening before my brother died, I stopped by quick to let Mom know that he was in the hospital. I was usually at the nursing home by 7:00, and seeing as it was 7:30, I knew she’d be worried. When I walked into the nursing home, Mom was in her wheelchair and faced the front desk. Mom’s nurse, Juliet, was frowning, looking through paperwork, and held a phone away from her ear.
Juliet saw me first. She smiled, relaxed her shoulders, and pointed with the phone receiver toward me. I snuck around Mom’s chair, and watched Mom’s face light up when she saw me. “Where have you been?!”
It must have been hard for Mom to hear that her son was in the hospital. I assured her that he was doing well. I reminded her that we had been through this before. I told her not to worry and that I’d be back the next evening after work.
A few weeks before, Mom had an afternoon nightmare that Lou had passed. When I got to the nursing home that evening, I was sickened to see she had spent hours grieving for the loss of my brother, when it wasn’t true. “Remember Mom, we agreed. If something happens, I will come and tell you myself. It won’t be by a phone call, no one here is going to tell you. Okay?”
I can still see her sitting there in her wheelchair that Monday evening, wanting to believe me.
The phone rang at 2:05am. I couldn’t believe it was the hospital calling already. I just got home an hour and a half before. The doctor’s speech was halted, my brother took an unexpected turn for the worse. The doctor guessed he had only a few hours left. Although the hospital was a straight mile and a half from my house, I was too late. I could not believe it. I don’t even remember the ride back home at 3:30am. It was all wrong, it wasn’t supposed to have happened like that. My brother was comfortable and sleeping when I left. I wondered if Mom was awake with worry. Mothers often have a premonition when things are bad. I couldn’t begin to imagine how hard this news was going to be on her. I needed Mom to have just a few more hours of believing the world was right. It would be the last sleep before her heart was broken.
It was 4:09 am and I couldn’t keep the news from my mother any longer. I called the nursing home to have a staff member check to see if Mom was awake. They offered to give Mom their portable phone, but I said no. I had to see her in person.
When I entered her room, Mom looked at me with pained eyes before I even said a word. The moment was almost too unbearable for words, but the words had to be said.
My brother’s death seemed to make time stop. I privately begged to go backwards in time. I couldn’t stop my brain from thinking that I should have stopped the doctor from sedating my brother for the CAT scan. There was that voice inside of me that didn’t like the sound of it. I wanted to imagine how differently things would have looked, and stay with it. But the minutes jerked me forward. Forcing me to talk about things I didn’t want to talk about.
“I should have said something. I should have called the on-line nurse at Marshfield myself.” The tears wouldn’t stop.
Mom took charge of my inability to reason, “That’s not on you! That’s the doctor’s job to make those decisions.”
“And then he died before I get there,” I said, my grief freely flowing. “He’s the only person I know whose obituary is going to read, ‘he passed away peacefully, surrounded by his loving urgent care doctor and nurse.’ And then I added a fact we couldn’t ignore, ‘because he didn’t want a bunch of people sobbing by his bedside.’”
“That’s right!” Mom said, her brief moment of light laughter softened her face, and replaced it with the kind of sadness that I knew would stay with her forever.
Between bouts of tears, and inability to concentrate, I was in no condition to care for the children. I hired my daughter, Jen, to run my daycare the rest of the week.
On Wednesday, March 11th, there was 1205 confirmed cases of the Coronavirus in the United States. I could move freely through the Nursing Home. I went to the cafeteria and got her coffee, heated up her favorite mac-n-cheese frozen dinner, and took her down the hallway to visit with her friend Bonnie. Mom needed to grieve; I needed my mom. Numerous calls were made between my two brothers and two sisters. We decided on a funeral date of Tuesday, March 17th.
With 1598 confirmed cases on Thursday March 12th, my brother Mark and I started making the arrangements for Mom to get to the funeral. Kelsey, the social worker, and Heidi, the business office manager, offered to figure out the transportation. Mom lost so much weight that her nice tops didn’t fit anymore. I texted my sisters from the nursing home and asked if they might have something in their closet that Mom could wear. My sister, Shell, did one thing better. She went to the store and bought Mom a blue blouse and black sweater. When Shell texted a picture of her purchases, Mom rewarded her with an appreciative nod. “Thank-you,’ she said. “They’re pretty.”
It was a moment of sunshine that we all needed.
2163 cases were confirmed on Friday, March 13th. The coronavirus was becoming a threat. When I walked to the nursing home that morning, I was so deep in my own thoughts that I missed the neon-colored signs, in large print, that were plastered all over the front glass door.
“You didn’t see the signs?!” The nurse, my longtime friend, Val, had to laugh at me. She gently escorted me back toward the front desk and walked me through the new process for visitors. Val showed me where the hand sanitizer was set up by the inside glass door, and then opened the binder on the desk counter that had the questionnaire that all visitors had to answer and sign. No, I hadn’t traveled. No, I hadn’t been with anyone who had the coronavirus.
On Saturday, March 14th, the coronavirus scare was becoming real. When I got to the nursing home that morning, I used the sanitizer, and signed the guest-book. My sisters, Laurie and Shell, and I, had a meeting scheduled at the Funeral Home for 1:00. We had to bring the song selections and clothes. My brother Mark came and sat with Mom.
At 4:00 we had a combined birthday party for my 12-year-old grandson and two-year old granddaughter. It felt good to celebrate and remember there were still things in life that were good. That evening when my son, Cory, and I arrived at the nursing home with pizza for Mom, we used the sanitizer, signed the book, and next came a new requirement. My friend Karen, who was Mom’s nurse said, “new requirement! I have to take your temperature.”
With 3501 confirmed cases on Sunday, March 15th, the nursing home closed its door to visitors. My big brother, Del, was arriving that evening from Texas.
On Monday, March 16th, I called the nursing home. With the rising number of 4373 confirmed cases, I was starting to panic. “Is Mom going to be able to go to the funeral?” I was referred to Jason, the executive director.
It was agreed that Jason and Lynn, RN, would meet with Mom. They would give her the current statistics and warnings, and let Mom decide.
That was the moment when the coronavirus became an unimaginable situation.
Mom chose not attend her son’s funeral.
It was amazing how in the darkest of days, we came up with a solution. Mom owned a laptop and had a Facebook account. We could stream the church service through Facebook.
On Tuesday, March 17th, 5662 cases were confirmed. I wiped down Mom’s laptop with a bleach solution and put it in a woven hand-bag. When I met the nurse’s aide, Kristy, at the outside front door, I was near tears when I asked, “will someone sit with Mom for the service?”
I looked for Mom in the lobby through the glass door. It was probably better for both of us that she wasn’t there.
“Of course!” Kristy, responded. You could feel the pull of a hug, to give, to receive. But instead, in the new no-touch world, I said, “Love you.”
Kristy replied, her genuine sadness for our family showing through, “Love you too.”
I was again shut away from my mom. For the benefit of me, her, the staff, and all those at-risk souls inside.
At the viewing, although the much-needed hugs were rare, there was a different kind of supportive connection that embraced those who attended. Forced to speak more, hug less, we spoke from our hearts, and shared stories from my brother’s past. I got to know a brother on a deeper level than I ever did when he was alive.
When my sister started streaming our family gathered together, grieving together, it gave us a strengthened sense of togetherness. With Dad gone, Mom had to grieve the loss of their child alone. It was a different kind of loss, something no parent should ever have to do. But, then too, Mom could see how her living children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, had found deepened support, through each other.
On Wednesday, March 18th, there were 8074 confirmed cases. We brought Mom a cell phone. I’m thankful to still be able to connect with her every day. Recently we even started Facetiming, with the help of my friend, Karen.
Today, Tuesday, March 24th, there are 42,752 cases of coronavirus.
I think about what our family went through, and how we took the worst kind of circumstance, and made it work.
I feel fortunate, thankful, and deeply grateful to have shared this kind of humanness with family, friends, caregivers, a supportive church and undertaker.
We celebrated a life. We mourned. We had a funeral.