My mother-in-law passed away a week ago, not from COVID-19, but from cancer. In 2016, she was diagnosed with an advanced stage of a rare cancer that projects only a five percent chance of surviving beyond five years. She made it four.
I’ve felt a multitude of emotions since that day in 2016: sadness and fear when we were told about the initial diagnosis; elation when she got an “all clear” from the oncologist; resolution when she decided to enter hospice care. Most recently, I was filled with both gratitude and anger the morning we said good-bye.
I am grateful that she passed peacefully in her sleep, at home. I would have been grateful for that gift under any scenario, but even more so during a time when a hospital or skilled nursing bed would have prohibited visitors. I am grateful for the compassionate care she received from her in-home hospice team, for my colleagues who granted me the space I needed to be with family.
I am also angry and frustrated. The family did our best to abide by recommendations to stay home, to avoid large gatherings, and to wear masks at all times, even outside, when we did see each other, but it came with a lonely price. When it became clear that there wasn’t much time left, I worried that I was bringing coronavirus into the house every time we went to visit. Many of her family members and friends weren’t able to visit due to travel or other risks. I didn’t hug her or my in-laws, afraid that I would make an impossible situation even worse. With masks on, it was hard for her to understand us, and at the end, it was a circular, Laurel & Hardy-esque physical comedy when anyone cried or had to clear their nose.
When people engage in responsible civil protest about the impact of being in lockdown, when there are cries to open back up, I get it. We are social creatures- in life, and through death. My mother-in-law deserved more than a graveside service with only her husband and children present. Her family deserves a chance to mourn and celebrate her life in the company of all who loved her, and we don’t know when that chance will come.
Here’s the thing, though: As much as I deeply and truly want closure, I also support taking a cautious approach to how we ‘re-open’. The passing of a loved one is a terrible experience to go through, and as I’ve learned, even harder during a pandemic.
My mother-in-law lived her life with pragmatic resilience, even with terminal cancer. She never forgot or underestimated what she was facing. She wasn’t reckless, but she didn’t live in fear either. She was present for her family and friends, and she made a choice everyday to keep moving forward- for others as much as for herself. It is something I admired most about her, and something we can all embrace, especially as we begin to resume activities across the country.
We each have a social responsibility to each other: don’t live in fear, but don’t be reckless. It is the only path forward to minimize the number of deaths from COVID-19 and thereby minimize the number of families who must grieve through an anti-social loss.