Grieving in the time of pandemic

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News

On Saturday, March 7, I left campus to spend Spring Break with my family in the suburbs of Allentown, Pennsylvania. On the one hand, I was relieved to return home—the past week of my life had been spent stressing over my thesis and recovering from a cold. But on the other hand, I knew the next couple of weeks would turn my world upside down. And no, before you ask, I wasn’t yet worried about the novel coronavirus. I was anxious about a different disease: cancer.

This past summer, my Pop-Pop was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. When I first found out, I was living in a dorm at Muhlenberg College during a demanding seven-week summer job. Despite the fact that Muhlenberg is located within miles of my home, the rigors of the job prevented me from being with my family as I struggled to process this new reality. By August, I was able to rejoin my family and share their sadness as we did what we could to support my Nana and Pop-Pop as they grappled with a life-altering diagnosis, which would in all likelihood be terminal. 

As I started the fall semester at Vassar, I experienced the same anguish of being apart from my family during a difficult time. This pain was somewhat eased by the fact that my Pop-Pop appeared to be responding favorably to the chemo. Then one day in November, as I was walking alone across the residential quad, I got an unexpected call from my mom. She began: “Are you sitting?” Quickly, I rushed into Rocky and took a seat on a bench near the elevator before replying: “yes.” Then, my mom told me that the cancer doctor had given my Pop-Pop between six weeks and six months to live.

Things quickly took a turn for the worse. By the time I returned home for winter break, I saw how immensely my Pop-Pop was suffering; immunotherapy was wreaking havoc on his body and a mysterious “itching” side effect was putting him through constant agony. On Christmas Day, as I gathered with my cousins in my Nana and Pop-Pop’s living room to open presents, I understood that this was the last time we would all celebrate like this. Cancer was going to take our Pop-Pop from us, and our family would never feel quite the same again. The mood was somber—a holiday that had previously held nothing but joy was tainted by the dark cloud looming above us. I felt the weight of change upon us, and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to bear it.

Before I could begin processing this sense of impending doom, it was time to go back to school. In all honesty, I was eager to return to campus and temporarily escape the sense of gloom and despair that was pervading my homelife. Of course, I felt guilty as well. But there was relief in the return to a sense of normalcy. I heard updates on my Pop-Pop from my parents during our weekly Skype calls—the updates got increasingly worrisome as his condition deteriorated—but between classes, my thesis, my job commitments, and of course my occasional social life, I had a lot of distractions to juggle. 

That is, until I came home again for spring break. When my mom picked me up at the TH parking lot in her minivan, the first thing we talked about was my Pop-Pop. Over the last few weeks, his quality of life had declined to a point where his suffering felt needless. We knew that it was a matter of weeks, if not days, until he passed. And sure enough, on Thursday, March 12, I was awoken by an early morning phone call. I sprung out of bed, and when my mother turned to me, she broke into tears and whispered the two words that I had both expected and feared for so many months: “It’s over.”

But the end was only just beginning. At the exact same time that the phone started ringing, President Bradley sent out an email to all students announcing Vassar’s decision to move to remote learning. Like my Pop-Pop’s death, this too was not a surprise to me. Yet hearing both outcomes at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel like my world had just been split in two. 

In the days that followed, the novel coronavirus continued to spread across the country. As my family struggled to cope with the news of my Pop-Pop’s passing, we suddenly faced a new dilemma: How could we grieve together in such a dangerous time? As the media covers cancellations and closures across the country, much of the emphasis has been on entertainment and celebratory events. From Disney World to sports arenas, venues are closing, and everything from weddings to Bar Mitzvahs has been indefinitely postponed. 

While I don’t wish to minimize the pain that comes with these sorts of cancellations, as well as the very real economic struggles that have been brought on by these rapid and disorienting changes, I feel the media has mainly overlooked one particularly painful event to cancel: a funeral. Certainly, there is some global context here. Italy’s funeral industry is struggling under the weight of the nation’s crisis, and mourners are forced to grieve in isolation. Additionally, The Washington Post published haunting images of mass graves dug out in Iran, a country where burial should occur within 24 hours in accordance with Islamic tradition. 

Both nationally and across the globe, we are united by universal experiences of death and grief. When we lose a loved one, we long to be surrounded by those who care about us. We want to hug each other a little tighter, a little closer, in the hopes of using our human connections to endure the sadness and pain of grief. It is human instinct to heal in this way. And yet, in our new era of social distancing, grieving has become nearly impossible. Although I’m grateful to be with my family at this time, rather than on campus, the novel coronavirus has prevented us from any sort of normal grieving. It has aggravated our anguish. Perhaps most importantly, it will mean that my Pop-Pop, may he rest in peace, won’t be able to have a proper funeral. 

Last Christmas, when I imagined that life without my Pop-Pop would never be the same, I never pictured it like this. My Pop-Pop was loved by many, and news of his passing has brought immense sadness to the friends and family who adored him, especially my Nana, with whom he shared over 50 years. If you are also experiencing the pain of being unable to grieve in the era of the novel coronavirus and social distancing, please know that you are not alone. And if you know someone who recently lost a loved one, please reach out to them—these are truly unprecedented times, and this is a situation that none of us could have foreseen. 

I wish I could end on a positive note, but all I can say is that my family is doing everything we can to check in with each other and maintain a sense of connection as we try to cope with all this change. Wherever you find yourself at this point in time, I hope you are able to do the same.

3 Comments

  1. I feel so sorry for you, Amy, as well as the rest of your family. I’ve known your mother for many years and she is a lovely person and I am sure you are too. And also of course, you have a great dad. What you wrote was very touching, moving and reflected your love of your beloved Pop-Pop.I shall say a nightly for the Miller family.

  2. Amy,
    I know that you miss your Pop-Pop and I cannot tell you the immense love and pride that I felt when I read your article. You are truly blessed with the ability to express yourself and to make everyone understand the enormity of the impact of this virus on ordinary people as well as our country and the world.
    My love to you always,
    Nana

  3. Beautifully written. Amy. Your mother is one of my oldest and most cherished friends and she and your dad are so proud of you and as all of your accomplishments. Your essay captures the essence of the pain and uncertainty that you and your family and well as millions of other families are going through. Thank you for this gift.

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