Sitting With the Dead

Being apart from those we love as they die is one of COVID's cruelest cuts

Posted Oct 24, 2020

Coming in from a cold rainy walk, I was transfixed with a story of a five-year-old girl saying goodbye to her four-year-old cousin who had just died.  

Transfixed, because I was remembering my dad and being with him when he died. Holding his hand. Sitting with him while he grew cold and we waited the long hours for the funeral director to come and take his body. It felt disrespectful for us to leave him alone. My mother, brother, and I took turns being with him or gathered in the room to be with one another and wait.

I loved my father very much. Listening to the chaplain tell stories of grieving parents and cousins and husbands and friends asking after the bodies of their loved ones, I thought again about my dad. About walking in the woods and camping. The dozens and dozens of pictures we went through after he died that all seemed to show him holding a child or grandchild, hugging my mom, sitting in a boat or making a fire. Of our arguments – we argued a lot. Of how he always introduced me as “My daughter, the doctor.” And would laugh because I wasn’t really a doctor, just a Ph.D. 

Death together. 

I always treasure the time I spent with him as he died.  My mother had cared for him for years. She did his home dialysis, helped him monitor his diabetes, counted out his pills. Pushed his wheelchair into the woods up way too muddy trails. 

I only got to town the day before he passed. I held his hand like I always did. And, just like the hospice books told us would happen, he became increasingly focused on his inner self, rousing only to hush us if we talked too loud and disturbed his settling thoughts. We sang with the minister and read verses he would have loved. His last words were to my mom. Thanking her.

And he was gone.

Dying alone.

I think about that often now in the pandemic. With so many people away from the presence and touch of their loved ones at the end. A final cruelty.

The ritual of being together as they die. The rituals of crossing the arms and closing the eyes. 

For many the rites of washing the dead. Do listen to the chaplain’s story of how grieving families long to see the bodies of their loved ones, in conditions you can’t imagine would not bring more pain. But they didn't. People want to be there. They want to touch. They need to know.

And I grieve for those who have had that taken from them because of where we are now.

May it end soon.