By: Annamarie A. Fuchs, Creator. Partners in Health | Conversations.
February 21, 2021
This week, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer released the following update.
“Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 825,785 cases of COVID-19, including 21,293 deaths reported in Canada; these cumulative numbers tell us about the overall burden of COVID-19 illness to date. Though many areas continue to experience high infection rates, it is important to remember that the vast majority of Canadians remain susceptible to COVID-19. As well, the emergence and spread of certain SARS-CoV-2 virus variants is an additional cause for concern.”
In early 2020, I doubt that too many people outside the health professions had a sense about what was to come and how a tiny virus would become the powerful enemy that it is. But things moved very quickly and in early March last year I was sitting in a board meeting that we soon learned would be our last face to face board meeting, at least for the time being. As a corporate director and healthcare consultant, much of my work takes place face to face, or it used to. In a matter of days, my work evolved like that of so many others and became fully remote. Board meetings transitioned to online video platforms and my clients began to use the same means to accomplish the work we had underway. It’s been a process of adjustment but not an impossible one. While many of us are feeling a growing sense of isolation, most of the people I speak with are finding ways to cope. Frankly, we have no choice. The work is getting done, business decisions are being made, and the people we serve continue to receive the supports and the services they have come to expect.
What none of us anticipated however was the overwhelming impact this pandemic would impose on all of us both personally and socially. The ways that we were accustomed to celebrating weddings, birthdays, funerals, and holidays all came to a screeching halt. And, while illness and death continue to occur, the numbers of the dead and dying from COVID-19 alone continue to escalate around the world. I’ve stopped checking the Johns Hopkins site for worldwide infection and death rates. Those purely objective and horribly impersonal measures of illness and death have become incomprehensible for me to endure.
Some months ago, I sat holding my hand over my mouth watching the news while caskets were being stacked one on top of the other in New York’s Hart Island as the fabled city of dreams became a place of nightmares. City officials were forced to deal with unmanageable death rates by ordering mass burials of more than two thousand victims in that one location alone. Having spent nearly 10 years as a palliative care nurse who journeyed beside literally hundreds of people as they reached the end of life, what came to my mind was the realization that there were thousands and thousands of people who were and are grieving those more than 2000 losses. The mounting impact on a human scale in my opinion will simply never be measured or fully comprehended. And when people scoff at COVID-19 and suggest that it’s not real, I have a hard time maintaining my composure.
On November 18, 2020, Hennigan released an article in Time Magazine entitled “Lost in the Pandemic: Inside New York City’s Mass Graveyard on Hart Island.” That article highlights the tragedy at Hart Island, also known as Potter’s Field by following the story of one woman.
The sun has barely risen above the glassy surface of Long Island Sound. A breeze sweeps over an island half a mile from the Bronx where 15 workers watch a backhoe remove the layer of soil that separates a mass grave from the outside world. There are 1,165 identical pine caskets stacked three-high, two-wide in this football-field-sized pit.
Throughout 2020 and now into 2021, most of us have come to know people who have been stricken with COVID-19. Some people I know, have lost loved ones to the disease. I know several physicians and nurses who became ill while caring for others. Fortunately, the people I personally know have all recovered. However, regardless of the nature of loss during a pandemic, we have all been confronted by the fact that our time honored traditions, our social and cultural norms surrounding illness and death are no more exempt from the sweeping hand of COVID-19 than the mass burials at Hart Island and elsewhere in the world. And stacked onto the losses associated with the virus are the deaths from all other causes alongside the loss of life as we knew it. Cleary this past year and likely 2021 are years that will be remembered as being marked by our collective grief.
It was during a conversation with a group of citizen activists last week that we began to share our experiences with illness and loss during the pandemic. We discovered that many of us know people who have become ill while two of us had recently lost elderly parents who died in hospital. We talked about how the restrictions affected visitation and how inexplicable the entire experience had been. There is undoubtedly a dimension to illness and loss that occurs during a pandemic that cannot be understood unless you are either caring for people in hospital as a provider or you are a loved one trying to reconcile the need for compliance to the rules that protect society alongside your need to remain present with loved ones when they are at their most vulnerable.
In September my father-in-law turned 90 years old. He had been living independently in his own home and until he was widowed two years ago, he had spent the last 20 years as the full-time caregiver for his wife of 63 years. His ambition was to celebrate his 90th birthday. He reminded my husband over and over throughout 2020 that he was determined meet that objective. After that, all bets were off. So, when the day arrived and with COVID protocols in place, we celebrated. He was pleased. But he was tired. It was obvious to anyone who was near him in the months before his birthday that his remaining days were in short supply.
In October he was admitted to hospital twice. The second time, he entered hospital with an acute illness unrelated to COVID-19 and 3 weeks later he died. We grieved and began to plan a funeral. But the day after the arrangements were finalized, new restrictions were announced and the funeral which had been planned to accommodate 40 people and without a luncheon, was cancelled. We were left to carry out an intimate grave side event for 7 family members and 3 funeral attendants. His four adult grandchildren stood masked one hundred feet away, just outside the cemetery fence so they could participate (see the accompanying photograph). The experience was surreal. But we celebrated his life and raised our cups of Tim Hortons coffee (his favorite drink) over his casket while we bade him farewell and wished him Godspeed.
I’ve talked with so many people who have been forced to cancel graduations, bucket list trips, weddings, and funerals. Humans are hard wired for connection, for relationship. And we are all suffering in some manner because we are isolated from each other and from our traditions. However, regardless of context we seem to be revealing finer attributes of our humanity because of our common experience of suffering. Perhaps our differences have also become hidden behind masks, leaving us to gaze into each other’s eyes with a sense that we are indeed in this together. I know that many of us have begun to experience a profound compassion for others. We have begun to overlook our biases, subjugate our own needs, and grieve together as members of a wider community who have lost our ability to maintain our traditions associated with isolation, loneliness, illness, and death.
What do we do with grief when we can’t plan a funeral? We learn to grieve and say goodbye in new ways. What do we do in the case described by Hennigan where a woman who died during COVID-19 was lost in a numbered casket in a mass grave and eventually recovered? We honor those city workers who gently removed her from one casket, moved her to another, and journeyed with her to her new resting place to wish her farewell. And what do we do with isolation and loneliness? We make eye contact at the farmers market or the grocery store. We say hello to vendors more often and we ask they how they’re doing. It takes longer to shop these days, and longer to thank the courier who brings packages to my door. I feel compelled to connect with others in a way that I never did before, perhaps because so many of us are profoundly aware that we are all experiencing collective grief in some manner. That grief is real. And it’s not going away any time soon.
Loss is part of the human condition. But loss during a time of pandemic requires us to rethink all of the cultural and social norms associated with what it means to be human, to live in society, to love others, and to grieve. Everyone is experiencing fear, isolation, illness, loss, and simply the loss of how we lived our lives before COVID-19. I suspect most of us would admit that we took much of what we once had for granted. Part of me hopes that when this is over and we all return to some sort of new normal, we’ll hold onto many of the lessons we are learning as we share moments of our lives and our losses by comforting each other in our collective grief.