March 21, 2020, a crisp Saturday morning in Boulder, Colorado. I lay in bed, thoughts clouded over by the vaporous remnants of a deep sleep. My mother calls. The finches’ cheery chirps die. “Your father woke up with a fever.” Those words sink into the air like stones. My numb body springs up like a wind-up toy, jolted awake by an invisible hand. My mother and I both know what COVID-19 would mean for my father. He checks just about every box for “high-risk” underlying conditions and moved to a nursing home permanently four years ago. Should he need it, he would be last in line for a respirator. I take a few steps outside, barefoot in the snow.
The next day, his fever is gone but he now wears an oxygen mask to help with his breathing, which grows progressively more labored. His doctor, cloaked in her PPE armor, holds up an iPad to his face with her gloved hands. I say a few words that get lost in the mechanical hum of the oxygen machine before the connection breaks off.
March 23, 2020, another morning. My phone rings. Somehow, I just know. I am used to those dreaded phone calls by now, to the slight change in inflexion in my mother’s voice. My father had his first stroke when I was ten. We were told to say our goodbyes; the bleeding was too severe. Months in the ICU, years in physical and speech therapy, and he made an almost complete recovery. A miracle. Then it was cancer my senior year of high school. Two long scars and a throat burnt by rounds of chemo, and he was cancer-free. The second stroke hit like a tsunami, wrecking all remapped synaptic connections in its path.
What he had fought so hard to retrieve, he loses again, yet every time I come and visit, he insists on standing up tall to say goodbye. He reminds me of the protagonist in one of Duras’ novels, who, year after year, tries to erect a futile dam against the invincible sea to prevent her crops from being submerged. Except his dam held strong for years, continually rebuilt from the resilience of the human spirit.
A man who had been fighting for his life for years passed away in a heartbeat. Just like that. Such is the reality of COVID-19. The weight of his life, the heavy burden of his numerous illnesses wisped away in a moment of unbearable lightness. The words of Milan Kundera echo in my mind: “Do we suffer from the insignificance of our life, or instead, from the dramatic weight of it?” — a question that governs the very conflict at the heart of our existence.
Like thousands of others, my father died away from family, the tearful faces of loved ones replaced by a flurry of isolation gowns, anonymous mask-clad faces basked in fluorescent lighting. His last moments are left to my imagination: Were his eyes open? Did he seem scared, or at peace? Was someone holding his hand?
I search for a flight home to France, most of which are cancelled. But this time, things are different. “I don’t think you should come home. We can’t even have a funeral.” Funeral rites are as old as human culture itself, spanning all peoples and civilizations. In a society that makes little room for death and grieving, funerals provide a safe and structured space for shared remembrance. For survivors of the deceased, they act as a gate between the old and new. In a time when days blend together and the future is uncertain, this demarcation becomes especially difficult to make.
So, we do the next best thing: a WhatsApp group to share memories, stories and pictures. My mother builds a small altar out of incense, candles and keepsakes to accompany him in this unreal ceremony. For the first time in my life, I am grateful for technology. For these stories are what give substance to his existence and prevent it from evaporating into weightlessness.
COVID-19 has normalized the daily presence of death and altered our everyday lives so drastically that the reality of his absence feels less palpable each day, dulled by a sea of tragedies. Everything is put on hold: weddings, graduations and even grief. For the deceased’s relatives, the private and public facets of grief are separated by a timeframe of unknown duration, lost in a liminal space. But there is some strange comfort in this shared grief experience, in the knowledge that millions of others around the world are experiencing the same emotions, despite not speaking the same language.
On April 2, France’s death toll jumped as the health ministry included nursing home fatalities. To us, my father is far more than another red “+1” on the screen. He liked drinking his morning espresso at a café terrace. The nostalgic smell of lavender, his father’s cologne. He was a man with a complicated past who loved his family without measure. I think of his empty, locked-off room, his childhood Mickey Mouse watching over his few possessions like a vigil. Of goodbyes put on hold for 12 years.
In a time when our lives are saturated with projections and exponential graphs, I encourage you to listen to individual stories, to welcome remembrance, storytelling and narratives that help us make sense of our experience. To those who are grieving, be gentle with yourselves. Grief is nonlinear, it waxes and wanes, sometimes light and sometimes heavy. Embrace the altered trajectories, the detours and the unexpected. Place more weight on the little things: rekindling an old friendship, a meal shared with family, the glowing embrace of the sunset, the rustle of a new page turning. Life is not on hold.
LUDIVINE BRUNISSEN graduated from Yale College in 2019. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .