My precious four-year-old refers to this time as Coronavirus Time. To her it’s a happy time with lots of snuggles and baking.
Even when my Uncle died of Covid-19 last month, I don’t think the dots connected for her. And I’m OK with that. Frankly, I don’t think the dots connect for a lot of us. Even after watching my uncle struggle to breathe as he suffered from the virus, I find it hard to wrap my head around just how much this little virus has changed our society in such a very short time. And I struggle with what’s right and good and helpful, and what’s just not — just like you do.
But this isn’t about that. This is just a personal story of my experience dealing with the death of a loved one in “Coronavirus Time.”
I feel lucky to have been able to go in with my mother to see my Uncle Howie the day before he passed away from Covid-19 — in full PPE: gowns, N95 masks, face shields and gloves. I got to hold his hand (with gloves on), help his caretakers move him into an adjustable hospital bed provided by hospice, sing to him — from Hebrew prayers for healing to 60s hits to make him smile.
By the time we got there, he was unable to speak, though I could tell he was trying to. Whether he wanted to whisper a somber goodbye, an expression of pain or one of his trademark corny jokes, I’ll never know. But I could tell he was still in there, could hear us, and knew that we were there for him.
Not everyone is so lucky to see familiar faces as they breathe their last breaths these days, as hospitals and nursing homes have closed their doors to visitors in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19.Though some hospitals will allow loved ones to visit in “end of life” situations, as we were able to do, this is not always the case.
It was scary to arm myself in personal protective equipment and go into a building where the virus was known to have infected several patients, to come into direct contact with my uncle, who hadn’t been tested yet, but presented with all the symptoms.
Though I work as a nursing assistant in a hospital, I hadn’t yet experienced the donning of full PPE for protection from Covid as I was just coming back after a six-week leave of absence following breast cancer surgery. In my new job in Labor and Delivery, we now have to wear an N95 mask and face shield in most deliveries, as the pushing phase of labor and all that heavy breathing emits droplets into the air. I’ll admit, it’s not easy to breathe through all that, and I worry about the long-term respiratory effects of all of us nursing staff breathing through even the regular surgical masks for 12 hours straight.
But listening to my Uncle Howie struggle to breathe and not being able to do anything was excruciating. He was on oxygen, but his breath still came in quick, irregular and obviously painful rasps. We cleaned his face and mouth, removed his dentures, helped him to sip a little water from the little sponges that I asked the nursing staff to bring in for him.
In that moment, my nursing instincts kicked in and I didn’t really think about the gravity of it all. I just wanted to do whatever I could to make him more comfortable. I feel so very lucky to have been granted that opportunity, and to me it was well worth the risk.
While we were there, the hospice nurse came to check in on him. He told us his death was inevitable now and it wouldn’t be long. He increased his hourly doses of morphine to help his breathing and dull the pain. Uncle Howie passed away before dawn the next morning.
We found out more than a week after his death that he did indeed die of Covid-19. They tested him post-mortem. To me there was never a question. It was just like the images and descriptions I’ve seen of the way the virus ravages the lungs. Still, hearing the actual diagnosis affected me. And reliving the experience of being there, up close and personal, a wave of sadness and anger and grief I had pushed right through before came over me.
I had posted about the visit on Social Media. Here’s what I wrote…
A picture is worth 1000 words. They let my mom and I in to my Uncle Howie’s assisted living facility today in full PPE. (My wonderful sister was there, too, but she stayed outside per my mom’s request. She didn’t really want me to go in either, and I didn’t want her to, but we are both stubborn!)
The facility has been closed to all visitors for more than a month but they make exceptions when someone is near the end of their life.
We were only there for a few hours, but it was an emotional adrenaline rush followed by a big crash. He’s still hanging in there now.
Though he has not been tested, there have been confirmed cases of Covid-19 in his facility. He’s presumed positive based on his symptoms. They won’t take him to the hospital because he’s on hospice now. They are just trying to keep him comfortable.
It was horrible to see him struggling to breathe, but I’m so grateful I was able to be there with my mom. No one should have to face death alone. That’s one of the worst parts about this virus and situation. Hug your loved ones and stay safe.
My sweet Uncle Howie has lived a long and wonderful life, 50 plus years more than he was expected to live. He survived a bad car accident at 25 that put him in a coma for months and left him permanently brain-damaged. But he always had a smile on his face and a corny joke for anyone he came in contact with. He will be missed.
We spoke with the hospice nurse just now and he said he’s resting comfortably and will probably make it through the night. Big hugs
And the next day I posted again after he passed…
Our uncle Howie, Mom’s big brother, died early this morning at his assisted living facility in Phoenix. He would have been 79 this May.
As I said in my post yesterday, he was a loving, joyful man who lived more than 50 years longer than he was expected to after surviving a bad car accident at age 25 that put him in a coma for three months and left him permanently brain damaged. He always wanted to make people smile and told the corniest jokes.
I have so many fond memories of Howie. Before Grandma died, he lived with her in New York and I loved hanging out in his little room at Grandma’s house. He had so many treasures. He walked with a cane but really didn’t seem brain damaged to me. He was just my wonderful uncle.
After Grandma died in 1984, Mom moved Howie here to live in Arizona. He had his own private apartment in a large group home for many years. We would spend hours there on the weekends, mostly just hanging out while my mom made sure Howie was in good shape physically and emotionally. She was so amazing. His primary caretaker with so much weight on her shoulders for so many years. We all are lucky to have her in our lives, but she and Howie had a very special bond.
And having Howie in our life, spending so much time surrounded by the other people at his residence with various disabilities, we learned to love, respect and talk to people who were different. It gave us a compassion and an understanding that I didn’t realize was unique.
Mom moved Howie into the assisted living facility about 10 years ago. Of course he was loved there, too. He was loved everywhere he went.
My mom may not be a nurse, but she showed me what it is to be one, how to take care of a person selflessly, doing the messy jobs, sacrificing time and energy for another person. She taught us how to be a good sister and a good person.
The hardest part for us is not to be able to be together to mourn and celebrate Howie’s life. Because I’m sure he would say that it was a wonderful life. Rest In Peace, Uncle Howie. You will he remembered!
Mourning in a Pandemic
Everything is more complicated when someone dies now. All those things you need to coordinate and take care of, even the funeral or celebration of life, is affected. And there is a distinct lack of the social contact that is so very comforting to the mourning.
For Uncle Howie, we did a very small drive-by funeral at the cemetery. Only immediate family — my mom in her own car, my sister and her family in their own car, my dad in his, and me and my family in ours. The Rabbi, who’s also a close family friend, stood at the graveside maybe 100 feet away (I’m not good at estimating distances). Her words broadcast into our car via FaceTime so we could hear her as well as see her.
We emerged from the cars only briefly for a certain prayer that required us to stand. But mostly, the Rabbi said, for the first time in her life, all bets were off as far as what was “usually to be done” at a Jewish funeral. After the short somber service, each car went its separate way. We didn’t even gather for a meal together after.
We skipped the Shiva all together. Shiva is normally a sitting in time, a bit like a Catholic wake but different. It lasts a week, and relatives and loved ones come visit the mourners and bring food, reminisce and say prayers. Rabbi offered to do it virtually for us, but my mom didn’t want to do that. Some family members still wanted to send us meals, so we spread out in the grassy common area behind my mom’s condo with blankets and tables, and tried to keep the kids at least six feet away from their cousins.
A few days later, we met on my sister’s driveway and dined on Italian food.
I have seen friends grapple with the death of their own loved ones in recent weeks. Everything is hard. From not being able to visit them sick in the hospital, to recovering their things, to planning funerals and celebrations of life.
Life is just different now. And death is too. But we take a breath and we move on. And perhaps we are just a bit more thankful for each breath we do take.