By Susan Kavanaugh
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Cheche (Read more below)
Thirty-three days ago, my father died. He was 82 and passed away because of acute systolic heart failure. People will say now, and always, “He lived a long and wonderful life.” I was not ready for him to go and I know without a doubt HE was not ready to go.
My father was an amazing and adventurous man. When my friends all read his obituary, they commented many times, “Wow, Susan! Your father did so much in his life and had so many passions. I never knew this.”
He was my hero. My two brothers and I are mourning his loss, as is his wife and many others.
I’ve never experienced this depth of grief. It’s revealed parts of me I am proud of and parts of me that I hate.
During a time when the nation was just beginning to shut down due to COVID-19, Dad began to have troubling breathing. On April 3, I celebrated my birthday with a virtual cocktail party. On April 5, Dad was rushed to the hospital in an effort to save his life. The hospital had ventilators and he was intubated immediately so he could breathe.
Because of COVID-19, we could not visit my father in the hospital. We could not hold his hand, stroke his forehead, tell him aloud that he was going to get better. When he arrived, he presented with severe pneumonia, cardiac obstruction, sepsis, and kidneys that were beginning to fail.
He was tested for COVID-19 on the day he arrived and kept in quarantine, even though no visitors could come in. The front-line medical team needed to protect themselves. When the C-19 test came back negative, they tested him again to make absolutely certain he did not have COVID. After a week of complete aloneness (other than critical medical personnel), the second test came back negative.
My brothers and I would call the hospital all day for reports; And, we called each other, all day, for emotional support and strategy. My stepmother, who is bedridden, simply refused to believe he was that sick, but everything kept getting worse. Finally, the machines were the only thing keeping him alive. We had to make a decision to turn off that support.
Surreal. Everything was surreal. I’m certain that losing a loved one in B.C. (Before Covid-19) must have been tragic. But, our experience was much like a Salvador Dali painting. It was disjointed, dreamlike, out of perspective.
My younger brothers were both in Southern California. In fact, one of them had a son living in downtown L.A. where the virus was killing people right and left. My other brother was hunkered down with his wife and two teenaged kids trying to save his business as COVID-19 was destroying it. Everyone had been told “stay at home.”
An extremely kind hospital hospice director broke protocol to sneak us in to say our goodbyes though. “I rely on the kindness of strangers.” Like Blanche DuBois in “Streetcar Named Desire” I was as much in dream land, as I was in denial. My brothers nearly broke all laws driving quickly from California, staying distanced from each other and wearing masks and gloves, but sharing the same car. I had my husband help me get my stepmother into a wheelchair and to the hospital.
It was April 13 and we were nearly ships passing in the night. My brothers had arrived far earlier than expected and were snuck in a back door by the hospice doctor. It was a half hour before we (me, my husband and my stepmother) arrived. As we were escorted in, my brothers were leaving. Their grief was apparent. We had to remain distant physically and we all looked like a bunch of crying hoodlums as we blew kisses and offered air-hugs. It was pitiful and left us all feeling even more desperate and lost.
The visit broke me. I’d cried and wailed several times in the weeks leading up to this moment, but the process of saying goodbye to someone whose eyes were open and vacant, sometimes even rolling, and whose every breath was loud and forced is a stark reality that pushes you to the edge of every emotion you’ve ever experienced.
At 5:20, April 14, an hour after we’d called the hospital to ask them to turn everything off, he passed peacefully. He passed away with a nurse, but not with his loved ones. And all around our country those who have died, whether pandemic related or not, have been having to die alone.
When I consider this, I feel a vise grip surround my body. My stomach flinches, my mind whirls, and my heart aches.
And, everywhere others’ hearts are aching.
At least we were able to hold a funeral, but it was limited to 10 people in the family, and we had to wear masks and sit an appropriate distance from each other. No hugs, no one to lean on.
The Marine Corps gave him a full military send off. Masked young men in uniform folded the flag on Dad’s casket. It was a bit like watching our country broad and strong, fold in on itself, corner by corner by corner. At the cemetery, pandemic regulations required us to watch from our cars as his coffin was lowered. A regular freak show. A freak event. A fricking freaky world.
And what of others in this nation whose family members have also died during the time of the pandemic?
And what of those who are simply unable to be with family during the pandemic stay-at-home orders?
And what of this distance between us?
The pandemic has altered each of us. Accept it. B.C. is dead to us and in the past.
We are moving forward cautiously, slowly. At least I am. It’s a new world.
What has healing looked like for me? First and foremost a journey. For me, a journey without end but one in which I will begin to be able to celebrate my father’s life and celebrate the positive change brought about by COVID-19. So many of us can do that right now.
When my father became so ill I was silent most of the time. There was no expression, no feeling other than fear. I began to drink more wine. I saw a therapist and I joined a mindfulness group. I tried to practice yoga. But, I allowed myself to feel like a victim. I also became frighteningly mean. I would stumble into rage. I tried to keep up with my company, running a day late and a dollar short for my clients who kindly gave me some slack. I was allowing my world to crash. My Dad was dead. Why should my life be good?
There is a part of me, one of those parts I’m proud of and who I’ll call the observer, that could look at the bigger picture. I knew I needed to find healthier ways of grieving. And, I’m not there completely but I can say I’m working on it. And, that’s the most I can ask of myself.
I’m not drinking anything in May. I’m continuing my daily hikes with my very patient husband. I’m painting rocks, inspired by the ones left in various spots around out neighborhood. I’m taking time to read. I’m working fewer hours, with my clients’ understanding and permission.
I’m finding ways to honor my father.
My parents divorced when I was young, and my Dad made his permanent residence in the Bahamas. I’d lived there with my family before the divorce, but now I spent wonderful weeks with Dad in the Bahamas on Mariah, his sailboat and home. Those islands will always be a part of me. And, Dad had a rebel cowboy in him. He loved horses, guns, Harleys, and wide-open spaces. The ocean is not so very different than the wide expanses of desert in Arizona. He bought another home here when I was still in high school, and in addition to the Bahamas and the Midwest, Arizona became another part of me.
Each day I marry the sands of the ocean with the sands of the desert. I am taking seashells on my hikes. Large, small, white, orange, pink, brown. I choose a cactus, or a rock, anything that has become a landmark to me, and I place that shell in each area. I observe the moment and whisper to my father that I love him.
Perhaps when I run out of the seashells, I’ll start placing the painted rocks that have allowed me to destress in a world of personal pain and social pain.
And what of A.C. (After COVID-19)? What will moving forward in a new normal mean? We will never be able to forget the change we have all experienced.
During A.C., will we remember the lessons gained by this pandemic? We’ve learned the value of touch and the energy of social connection by having it taken away. We’ve learned that we can leave a lighter carbon footprint. We’ve learned that we can live with less money.
We’ve learned that we can live with loss, the deepest and darkest of loss. We know now we can survive fear and pain. We know there is no other choice.
The new world stands before us. Let us be brave. Let us teach the lessons we have learned. Let us honor one another.
Have you lost someone or something during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Do you have lessons you have learned?
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know about your lessons. I own KavCom: Conscious Communications, LLC. My goal in life is to help people find and express their authentic selves.
Elizabeth Cheche considers herself a symbolist artist. She is known internationally for her surrealist art. Originally from Auburn, NY, Elizabeth lives locally in Phoenix, AZ. She adores animals and is particularly fond of rabbits and birds which appear in her paintings regularly. Learn more about Elizabeth on her Facebook page or by emailing her at email@example.com.