As a chaplain, I have seen my fair share of death. When I visit people who are actively dying, I have come to expect what the ancient Celts called a “thin place” between life and death, where we experience the divine in tangible ways. Not uncommonly when I am with a dying person who is still able to talk, they see a loved one in the room with us, a long dead loved one. One father I had come to be with asked his daughter to move over so her mother could sit down. We’d buried his wife years before. The dead, invisible to us, are visible and real to the dying —leaving me to hope that the communion of saints, those who have gone before us, will indeed return to be with us at the hour of our deaths.
I’m thinking of these end-of-life visits as the news reports patients are dying of COVID-19 without their families in hospitals. Remember the obituaries of six weeks ago that read “died surrounded by their loving family?” We took this for granted, a rite of passage if death was expected. Our loved ones could gather, hold our hand, and let us know we are loved. Now the high transmissibility of COVID-19 has taken this away. Logically, I support the public health response that has restricted visitors to congregate living facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, assisted living facilities, shelters for the homeless and for battered women, group homes, prisons, convents and monasteries. Emotionally, however, my heart goes out to the residents; the people who work in these facilities; and the children or extended families who worry about them. At the end of February, one friend had the astonishing prescience to move her mother back home from her hospice.
In the past week, I’ve heard from two other close friends whose parents chose to remain where they are living. They are deeply worried that their parents will sicken and die, and they won’t be able to hold their hands and comfort them. I’ve talked with residents who are increasingly anxious without their regular visitors or the ability to leave their facilities, or even their rooms. They are suffering from slow emotional starvation.
COVID-19 will claim lives prematurely; lives of people we love, perhaps even our own. The grief that we are feeling now, especially in Minnesota where the COVID-19 peak is still weeks ahead of us, looks like anticipatory grief or ambiguous loss. Anticipatory grief is the sense of loss we feel before a death occurs. We often feel this grief when someone we love receives a terminal diagnosis. COVID-19 is the interloper that will claim some, and leave others spent but alive.
I would like to offer hope and comfort to those who, like me, are worrying. According to Nick Kristof, The New York Times reporter whose “Life and Death in the ‘Hot Zone’” opinion piece appeared over the weekend, what he found most impressive about his recent visits inside New York hospitals was the compassion and courage of the healthcare workers. He quoted from an email that Dr. Michael P. Jones, the head of the residency program at both hospitals, sent his young doctors last month:
“Take a few moments if you can to talk about patient’s families, their lives, their dreams. Ask if there is a loved one you can call. And lastly, two very difficult things: Hold your patient’s hand for a minute as they near death or pass, and ask your entire team to stop for five or 10 seconds, bow your heads, state the patient’s name, and ask for silence.
“This helps us retain our humanity in times of such crisis and gives our patients’ families some solace that they were treated with dignity.”
I have medical professionals in my extended family, and I can testify that their instincts mirror those of Dr. Jones. If they become fatally ill, the relatives and friends you’re worried about will not die alone.
Secondly, you can ease the anxieties of your friends and families by calling even more regularly, sending mail, and using the new technologies like Zoom to include them in family calls and online prayer groups. Many churches, including the one where I work, have established care circles, where volunteers are calling elderly members every week to check in and see if they need anything. Particularly for those who live alone, these calls can be powerful antidotes to loneliness and anxiety.
Finally, I hope you will be comforted by faith in the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. Waiting in the “thin places,” they haven’t forgotten us and will be with us at the end of our life. In her novel “Housekeeping,” Marilynne Robinson puts it this way:
“There is so little to remember of anyone — an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.”
Stay home. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. This is how we love one another.