By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Over the past month, the world as we all knew it has been completely dismantled. COVID-19 has changed everything about how we live and work, and we don’t know how long this massive shift will continue.
And on the cusp of everything shutting down, just a few weeks ago, a big part of my own world ended. My dad died.
I moved back home to Pittsburgh at the end of 2012 so that I could be close to my parents. My dad’s Alzheimer’s was accelerating, and I wanted to be around him while he still knew who I was, and to be close by when he inevitably would not. He was my hero, my favorite person. Watching him these last few years has been absolutely gut wrenching, as I witnessed him slowly forget who I was. There is a strange dance and balance to grieving the loss of someone whose hand you’re still able to hold.
I visited my father on Saturday, March 7. He was in his bed, a dinner tray next to him. I sat down and fed him his meal. He hadn’t been able to speak for a couple of months, but working with him to eat was communicative and intimate. After dinner, I held his hand and commented on the news channel that was on in the background; I bet he would have been a Bernie person this time around. He wore his “Bill for First Gentleman” shirt proudly when he first went into the nursing home, four years ago. After a while I told him I was going to go, but I’d be back soon. I started to stand up, but he wouldn’t let go of my hand. I almost lost it. It meant so much that it seemed he really knew I was there and wanted me to stay. My partner, Mike, came behind me to squeeze my shoulder. I gave Dad a hug and he kissed my forehead.
On Wednesday, March 11, I visited my dad during my lunch break. He was asleep most of the time. I rested my head on him and read a book. When I gave him a hug goodbye, he woke up and his eyes were wide, as if he were smiling.
On Thursday morning, March 12, I got a call that my dad’s nursing home would no longer be allowing visitors in light of the coronavirus epidemic. I was devastated, but knew they were taking the right precautions.
The next afternoon, Friday, March 13, I was shopping for my wedding dress when I got the call from my mom. My dad was likely going to pass in the next day or two. Despite the lockdown, his home would make an exception and allow both me and my mom to see him. I hung up and looked in the mirror. I was wearing a sparkling white wedding gown, tears pooling in my eyes. This is it, I thought.
I was with him for hours that night. He couldn’t move, but his eyes were open and wide nearly the whole time my mom and I were there. He was more alert than he’d been in ages. I said, “Hi, Dad,” and touched his face, his hair and kissed his head. His eye muscles scrunched up like he was smiling. I hugged him with my head on his chest, and he kissed my head.
I will never forget my last bit of one-on-one time with my dad. We stared into each other’s eyes for a long time. I tried, and failed, to talk without crying. “Thank you for always believing in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself… Thank you for teaching me what love is… thank you for showing me what compassion is, what being loving and caring is. How to be tender.” My dad and I always had a relationship where we would say “I love you” and hug all the time. I’m so grateful that we had the type of relationship that none of this was anything I hadn’t told him before, but the finality of this time weighed heavy.
I talked to him about my nose, which I’ve been self-conscious about for years. I told him about my amazing future husband, Mike, and how one of the first things that drew him to me was my nose. “How about that? After all of that, this nose, our nose is what got him!” I gently tapped his nose and giggled, my face so similar to his. “There is no doubt that you’re my dad and I’m your daughter.” More crying. I told him not to worry, that mom and I were going to take care of each other.
Mom came back after a couple hours, and I got up to go home to sleep. She said that I had the best dad ever, and I agreed. I gave my father hugs, kissed his head, touched his face, looked into those eyes and told him I loved him again. That he was the best dad ever, and the world is a better place because he was in it. I was in tears as I held my hand to his chest and looked into his eyes, which were still looking into mine. “You are always with me. And I am always with you.” I kissed him and told him that I’d see him in the morning.
Mom called early that next morning, March 14. My alarm had just gone off and I was getting ready to go back. She told me she was laying next to him the whole night, holding his arm. She dozed off for a bit, and when she woke up, he was gone. She closed his eyes. I guess that means the last thing he saw was his wife of 44 years, sleeping next to him. When I answered the phone Mike intuitively grabbed me, arms wrapped tightly around my waist. I collapsed, convulsing in tears as my mom told me the news. Shortly after I rolled out of bed and sat down in front of my laptop, typing everything I could remember about the night before. I didn’t want to forget any of the moments we’d shared.
The last few weeks have been a blur for me. Stay-at-home orders immediately followed dad’s passing. I’ve been home in a cocoon, grateful that I had bereavement time off and working from the safety of my house after that. I’ve been perpetually oscillating between painstaking sorrow over my dad, and the frantic anxiety about the scary moment we’re in. People losing their jobs, getting sick, dying. At this moment I’m grateful that my fear response is to freeze, since we’re supposed to stay home, but what about folks who are stuck in fight-or-flight? Aside from the great economic impact of this pandemic, what about the mental health of folks most impacted?
We are all experiencing grief and loss right now. For some folks these losses are compounded. Losing a job means losing a paycheck, but in our society, it can also mean a loss of identity. Students missing graduations, jobs, going back to school. Small businesses unsure if they’ll have to close their doors for good, unable to weather this storm. Weddings, celebrations, all canceled. So many plans, thwarted. Now that it’s been nearly a month and all but essential businesses are shut down through at least May, I’m grateful that my dad passed when he did. I can’t imagine a world where he’s still here, but completely alone, not allowed visitors.
I realize so many others don’t have that luxury. People have lost family members without being able to say goodbye, without a final hug and touch. Funerals are out of the question, so the closure that comes with them is on hold.
Even moments that should be joyful are tainted. I’ve known a couple folks who’ve given birth in the past month, and knowing their parents couldn’t be there to welcome their new grandchildren into the world is heartbreaking. So much beauty tainted by the fact that we need to be distant from each other to keep one another safe.
I’ve begun to step back into the world, metaphorically of course, because for the first couple weeks, I couldn’t take anything in. I shut down, and I’m grateful that my circumstances allowed me the space to process my loss, and especially thankful for my partner who’s made sure I stayed fed this whole time.
I’ve felt overwhelmed by my grief many times, crying so hard it physically hurts. I try to catch myself in those moments: “don’t run away from this,” I think. Sit in the pain, honor it. I understand that grief this big is only possible because I have something so wonderful to mourn.
I don’t know what the answers are to any of this. We are all grieving in some way right now. For many, there’s already been a constant fight to survive poverty, and now millions of us are shuttered at home hoping we and our loved ones survive this virus. The magnitude of the fear and trauma in this moment is real. As we continue down this uncertain path, let’s be gentle with ourselves, and each other.