I Paid My Final Respects to My Parents This Week
“As long as there is love and memory, there is no true loss”
In January, I lost both my parents to complications related to COVID-19. They were residents in a skilled nursing facility here in southern California where they were exposed and finally succumbed to this dreaded disease. They were in their 90’s and of course I was always expecting the call that one had passed from natural causes. but not both, not from COVID and certainly not in the same month.
We were just able to place their remains this past Thursday in a very intimate and peaceful service. Almost three months following their passing. The number of COVID related deaths here in southern California has been quite significant thus placing a totally unprepared stress on a funeral and mortuary service industry not capable of handling the supply issues. In my case, I had to wait over two months for their death certificates and as mentioned, almost three months to finally enshrine them.
Dealing with the death of a beloved family member is one of the most difficult things to go through in life. In the best of cases, a funeral home or mortuary will handle the logistics in a respectful and timely manner. However, these are not normal times nor normal circumstances, consequently the family members attempting to navigate their way through this process find those logistics a truly burdensome challenge, all the while grieving a loss and, in my case, not being able to say goodbye.
Sue Gill, a volunteer at Cruise in London shared these words: “I think those final moments with somebody are really important. That’s when we get the chance to say our goodbyes and tell them we love them.“ Unfortunately, so many of us have had our loved ones taken away without being able to say goodbye. It takes a special kind of inattention to human suffering to not notice how unfortunate it is that people have been left to face death alone.
The stark reality for the elderly in nursing homes is that the sick and dying could not have family members or close friends to comfort them in their final weeks or days. I was notified in March 2020 of the shutdown. ‘Non-essential personnel would no longer be permitted inside the facility.’ From the onset of COVID through January 2021 I was unable to hold my parent’s hands, look in their eyes, stroke their cheek, and tell them I loved them with a simple smile and kind words. Furthermore, funerals as we know them cannot be conducted as planned and family and friends cannot grieve together.
One of my BoomerGuy’s classmates lost a family member and ended up delivering the remains from Tucson to Nebraska so they could be buried in their family plot. Travel was not an option last year, so they ended up with a live stream of the funeral on Zoom. In my case, we will honor my parents with a memorial service in the fall, hopefully allowing enough time for this pandemic to subside, enabling local and distant friends and family to attend.
Of all the wrong doings of this pandemic, the one that haunts me the most is how people are left to die alone without family. Healthcare workers have been heroic throughout all this but they do not replace the loved ones who the dying need be with in their final moments. I was indeed fortunate as I was able to speak with both my mother and father on the phone always saying I loved them dearly, and did so on the day they died. At least this was some consolation for not being there in person.
“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal”
I’m certainly not an expert on the psychology of grief, and I’m not a medical practitioner who can advance theories on how it will affect your overall health, but I do want to share my experiences and how I’ve dealt with them.
- The trauma of the coronavirus has changed the way we live and die. As I have expressed so many times in my blogs, we must live life to the fullest, focus on the life that has been lived, and be an inspiration to not only others, but ourselves, as well. Death has many faces, and we have to accept them on our own terms, but regardless of the love you have for the person who passed, you do not want to get stuck in the throws of despair. Know this, your loved one(s) knows you loved them and that should carry you over many of the negative and lonely hurdles you will encounter through this process.
- If you’re the family member chosen to lead, then lead. Do what you think is the absolute best solution for your loved one and those remaining family and friends. Keep them informed of your decisions and progress, but whatever you do, don’t subject yourself to Monday morning quarterbacking, because there’s always someone who knows better, or at least thinks they do. But this doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Reach out to your mate, a close friend, business colleague or whomever you hold dear and seek their advice on how to best manage the affairs of bereavement.
- Be aware during this time there will be many starts and stops. So when you think you can let up on the grieving, it can all come crashing back down because something new has entered the mix. Dealing with the banks, credit facilities, Social Security and Medicare, insurance benefits if any, family Trust and Wills, etc. are never over till they’re over. The reappearance of all these and other issues will continue to cause the grief index to spike because you thought everything was addressed. Make a detailed list of all the things you need to accomplish and check off those boxes as often as you can because the mere exercise of doing that will give you some peace and sense of achievement.
- I know it’s difficult to plan ahead for the eventuality of death, no one likes to think about it proactively. But I can tell you from my experience, if you wait for death to occur, you might find yourself on the outside not having made appropriate arrangements for internment. This means a burial plot or memorial wall for accommodation.
- If you’re just a friend, don’t sit back and wait for special announcements. Pick up the phone or text/email and reach out to the family member in charge and offer up kind, uplifting, and supportive words of sympathy and condolence. My parent’s friends have done just that, and I can tell you it meant a lot having those shoulders to lean on.
- My parents were quite active in their church, and although I did not know them before, I found solace in speaking with their pastors. Not only have they been supportive but have been at the forefront of helping to organize the memorial service this fall. On Thursday, with a very small gathering I honored my parent’s wishes by saying goodbye and having one the ministers in attendance giving comfort when it was so needed.
- While they are of sound mind, prepare a “wish list” of meaningful issues, such as to whom they want their possessions to go, favorite flowers, songs and photos to be used at a service. You would be surprised at how helpful this can be in organizing events and advising family and friends of how they wanted things handled.
- Be prepared to share wonderful stories about their life, along with fun photos of remembrance.
- Have low expectations about rituals to which you are accustomed. I’m not saying they’re not important, it’s just that during this pandemic, things might be slightly different than what you expected or ordered. Also, be prepared for delays because as you know, many businesses have been shuttered and they’re just now getting their doors opened. For example, although we interred my parents this past Thursday, it will be another two months before their bronze memorial plaques will be delivered.
- A hallmark of COVID-19 has been the speed at which some patients have crashed, going from feeling only a little sick to being unable to breathe. Sometimes in the space of a few hours such a crash necessitates intubation or oxygen, a process that often renders the person incapable of speaking. Sometimes with little warning all communication is lost and more often than not the person is without family or loved ones when this happens. This was the case with my dear father, who not only suffered from dementia, but also could not speak. I would always insist on the healthcare worker handing the phone to my father so I could tell him all the wonderful things I knew about him, and that I loved him. In this instance, communication didn’t have to be two-way, one-way was sufficient.
During this past year we have had so many conflicting feelings and emotions, for our own safety and for the safety of our loved ones who were confined to nursing homes. I know many of you are dealing with these same emotions. What really took place inside those walls, I will probably never know. But I do know this, during the best of times the care given to my parents was good, not great, but adequate for their comfort and well-being. During COVID, however, the care was out of control and pure chaos. When my parents were placed into quarantine to protect them from a small COVID outbreak, and they still caught the virus from either infected residents or caregivers, and then placed into isolation, their days were numbered. We were all expected to just deal with this such that dying was normalized as though it was a small matter.
My question: why weren’t and why haven’t the elderly been protected more in nursing homes. My message to you in all this, you have to be their advocate in whatever fashion you can. And in all cases be kind and respectful to the healthcare providers and use them as your advocate to promote better care. Do not rely on a single opinion from any individual, get several and how to best to improve the relations with the nurses and the subsequent care for your loved ones. Where possible, see your family member or friend even if it’s outside on a protected patio. Listen to their words very carefully, whether it be over the phone or across a partition. Let them know you’re there for them, perhaps, just perhaps it will give them the boost they need.
The three and a half months since my parents passed has been long and painful, with the most critical aspect not being able to say goodbye. Well, I finally said goodbye this Thursday but it was still a sad reminder that COVID is still around us. My parents were good people, kind and loving in every regard. As I say my final goodbye, they will be in my heart forever.
Your daughter and loving BoomerGal…
Don’t let a day go by that you don’t share your love with those close to you.