Grief Unmasked

It’s 13 months today.

13 months since what feels like yesterday. I am watching and reading whatever I can find about nurses, doctors and end-of-life Doula‘s who have experienced the bedside of a person dying. This isn’t the first time that I’ve sought comfort scrolling through what is available and shared online.

In my search, I found this beautiful woman who is not only compassionate and lovely, but hysterically funny. She made me laugh through my tears. So I wrote her name down and found her blog. She’s an end-of-life Doula, I hope you will watch her Ted Talk and perhaps read some of her writing.

Her first blog was about Covid and how it affected her.

I began reading, but was unable to finish because In the middle of reading her entry , I realized I haven’t even processed the intensity with which Covid affected the days leading up to my husband’s passing from this life to the next, and my trauma surrounding his death.

The last voice message I have from my husband is about an appointment for the car we had recently purchased being canceled because of Covid. That’s it. Stored trauma. In my phone. His voice. Those words.

Our son had moved back from college prematurely because of Covid restrictions and lockdowns and we were navigating relationships and the challenges faced because of that dynamic. So many families were trying to figure out what in the world was happening. We weren’t all on the same page as far as what all this meant and how to navigate life, work, community and travel.

My husband was considered an essential worker, whatever that meant, and I was at home trying to stay informed, reading NPR and all I could find that would help me understand what was happening in our world. For me, it felt like a horrific game I did not want to play, jumping through moving hoops in a raging storm while being in an intense world crisis. I would try to share the day’s news with him, and our semi adult children each evening. Classes were stopping, moving on-line, jobs were stopping or drastically changing. We were all trying to live together and navigate the confusion and chaos of the beginning of Covid.

I tried organizing years of photographs to make the best of time during lockdown. It was an emotional experience, reliving so many memories I hadn’t looked at for so long.

Being the bearer of bad news was extremely stressful, yet I felt the weight of responsibility to be the person researching and sharing whatever information there was. It was a heavy burden to carry as my dear husband worked hard and tried to become informed in the evenings. As the nation seemed to divide over what to do, our family felt the decisiveness seep in. I hated it.

We had just decided to have a family meeting with the intention of doing all that we could to find a way to work together, live together and understand each other. Our hearts were united, our goal as parents was to foster respect and harmony in our home. Sadly, that meeting never happened.

When he was taken to the hospital after his fall, as an essential worker, I had to wait outside with my son until I was admitted. The employee responsible for admitting visitors had to check with several authorities to find out if a wife and son could enter to be with a critically wounded individual. I paced, trying to calm myself, praying, trusting, completely powerless. The trauma was surely multiplied every moment I waited outside the sliding doors wondering if I’d be admitted.

Once admitted, I was terrified they would tell me I had to leave because of Covid. I got conflicting information from the nurses that were caring for him. One told me, “You cannot come back in the morning , do you not understand what was happening with Covid?”

I wanted to scream, “ Do you not understand what is happening to my husband?! Who cares about this stupid virus!”

The other nurse told me to call in the morning. Thank God.

When I called the next morning, I was told there were several phone calls that needed to be made to find out if admittance was possible. I waited in agony, finally being told I would be admitted, with one child.

In the empty ICU waiting room I felt grateful that it was just the two of us there. And I felt disgusted to feel grateful that we weren’t crowded by people, that we could be alone in the terror of the grief of my husband being so injured. These two emotions created extreme nausea within me, like sea sickness I suppose. I believe it was an introduction to a new intensity of the feelings I’d be experiencing simultaneously for the rest of my life, gratitude and grief.

Each day that my sweet husband was in the hospital I had to call and find out if I would be allowed to be admitted. Each day I was terrified that I wouldn’t be. I can physically feel the terror as I write.

Would he have to stay alone in the hospital?

I felt the tremendous grief the rest of humanity was suffering under this virus. Italy specifically was in my heart because I had read and heard about people who had died in the hospital alone, family denied the comfort of grieving together at a funeral.

My husband, my life, my everything was suffering, dying and I wanted to override every precaution to be with him. It felt selfish, because the rest of the world was suffering too. It wasn’t selfish, it was my whole world.

Shame is the most wicked of creatures, a thief and a liar.

The chaos of COVID is a part of our story.

I wore the pain of every person denied visitation with their loved one like a heavy cloak each time I walked into the hospital. Why? Was my own pain not enough?

I felt a strange ridiculous insane amount of gratitude for being able to be next to my husband. With a plethora of IV’s and tubes, monitors and charts, how can gratitude be mixed up in such agony?

If you cannot understand what it is I’m trying to say, count yourself lucky.

The mask. I wore the mask with the nurses and doctors when they came in, then threw it away when they left. I ripped it off my face so I could just keep saying thank you to my husband and I love you and maybe he could see my lips or hear me clearly, even though his eyes were closed and he was in a coma.

I hated that mask. It represented fear, silence and separation. I hated it defining the last moments I had with him. I hated it because I was first told it was meaningless and ineffective and now I was supposed to believe it had power. I HATED IT BECAUSE I KNEW IT WAS POWERLESS TO SAVE HIM.

I don’t even remember if I kept wearing it the last couple days.

When my angel nurse arranged for an outside ceremony so our family could honor my husband and say goodbye, we all wore masks and stood apart from each other while the flag was raised and the words were said. Little did I know , this would be the funeral.

When the tears started to fall, everyone began to hug each other while the hospital administration watched us defy the distance regulations because hearts and tears turn family into criminals when someone is passing from this life to the next.

And shouldn’t we all?

Shouldn’t we all break the 6 feet apart law?

When someone is suffering, when we are suffering the greatest agony ever?

I broke it-hugged a friend whose father had died just before Covid. I remember weighing the choice in the moment, to comfort a fellow human being or risk sickness. To me there was no choice.

I came home to a bubble of my children and his parents and mine. I stayed in that bubble not to stay away from Covid, but because it was all I could do to survive to just wake up and be in my space. So I didn’t even register that an epidemic was happening.

My husband, my world was gone. I had experienced and was living my worst fears losing the most wonderful person I had ever known. Half of me had been ripped away, and I was barely surviving. Barely breathing. I had no brain space for the virus chaos.

We began to consider a memorial, a funeral, and I started to make a few calls to family. I quickly realized because of Covid restrictions, it was impossible to have a proper memorial. The devastation of not being supported by family and friends, and not being able to honor my husband was painfully intense. I did the best I could to create a memorial on paper for him and send it out to every single person who knew him. Bloodletting is the only description that seems accurate to the slow extended process of sending those cards. Updating and acquiring addresses beyond what I had, while my heart and lungs were physically clenched by grief was mentally and emotionally exhausting. It took weeks to accomplish the task. Every address held memories, and never again visits together. Every envelope was an agonizing goodbye.

So while I accomplished honoring my husband, my children and myself in the process, we did not receive the support a funeral is intended to give the grieving family. Isolation has been equated with torture. For those deeply grieving it is a form of inhuman cruelty. The truth is the suffering of all who had lost their loved one during Covid has been dramatically increased because of this.

In my own dark abyss, I simultaneously grieved for the rest of the wives, husbands, children, parents and siblings who are experiencing this tragedy during Covid.

Again, if you don’t understand the depth of what I am saying, count yourself lucky.

A few months later, mustering bravery, I ventured out. Masks were happening and people were talking. They wanted to know my opinion. There were so many opinions, conspiracy theories, science explanations, political agendas, masks were the talk of the town, the state, the nation, the world.

But my world had been shattered.

Masks and the restrictions for doing and not doing all whatever things didn’t matter.

The people, and the hearts, and the connections and relationships were what mattered.

The moments in the day were what mattered.

Why couldn’t anyone see this?

Grief carries its own distancing fear from onlookers. I’ve wondered if those who are afraid of the agony surrounding untimely, tragic death welcomed the restrictions and distance required, an excuse to hide from our pain.

Our moments and days, these weeks and months were filled with agonizing grief that needed to be supported without a mask, without restrictions, without fear.

I can see my husband now, rolling his eyes, throwing off his mask and embracing his loved ones if ever they were in such agony.

My family and I contracted Covid over the holidays, we’re not quite sure when or how being so isolated. But I didn’t even realize I had every single symptom until long after I had gone through enough time to be past my quarantine. Because difficulty and strenuous breathing, headaches, nausea, weakness, sleeplessness, achiness, even loss of taste and smell, are all symptoms of grief.

I had been feeling all of these symptoms since my husband died. Covid doesn’t feel any different than the grief I had been experiencing for the last half a year.

There was no mask or distance to save me.

Now that restrictions are being lifted and masks are being taken off, I’m wondering if people will want me to mask my grief.

As the masks fall, and smiles are welcomed and life and love are joyously breathed into each other's souls, please also recognize that tears and pain have been imprisoned and isolated, starved and silenced behind the masks.

Please know those tears have not evaporated into thin air, instead they have been dammed up behind the walls of separation, behind the deception of the mask.

They have not conveniently dissipated, but have been painfully stored. There will be rivers and oceans and drizzling and storms. The waters of grief will fall and rage and flow unmasked.