I’m grateful dad died before the Covid-19 crisis hit

Covid Stories: Grieving through a pandemic has added new dimensions to losing a parent

Katharina Ó Cathaoir with her father Brendan Ó Cathaoir, who worked for The Irish Times for 35 years.

Katharina Ó Cathaoir with her father Brendan Ó Cathaoir, who worked for The Irish Times for 35 years.

 

“The death of a loved one is a strange, desolate experience,” my father wrote in this paper in December 2000. Nineteen years to the day, he lay dying in the Blackrock Clinic. Grieving through a global pandemic has added new dimensions to the lonely experience of losing a beloved parent.

I returned to my adopted home of Denmark a week after my father died. There was solace in routine: get up, cycle to work, talk about things that don’t relate to death and suffering, come home, repeat. For my colleagues and friends, life rolled on unchanged. The trauma of the illness and death of my father, who was my best friend, existed in a world separate from teaching, peer reviews, and flat tyres. Others could be spared the bleak reality that sometimes we don’t “beat” cancer.

On March 11th, the Danish government announced a lockdown to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Working from home, while not the end of the world, dispenses with those invisible barriers we erect between private and professional. Suddenly, the routine keeping me afloat was ripped away.

The chaos of loss and death, which we fight to maintain as peripheral concerns, took centre stage for everyone around me. I’ve come to feel that similar processes to what I went through when living with my father’s shock diagnosis of terminal cancer in February 2019 are being felt all over the country and world. Many of us are waking up to a new reality: we are fragile and vulnerable; our lives are uncertain. There but for the grace of God go I, my dad used to recite.

My dad had seemed like a towering beacon of strength; he would hike every weekend for hours, rarely stopping for refreshments. He wrote beautifully and had a saying for every occasion. But within a few months of his diagnosis, the cancer had penetrated his brain, a gaping hole in his skull making the grim reality of impending death inescapable.

After my father’s death, people would ask whether I was consoled that he was no longer suffering and at peace. Until corona, it never clicked. Now, I feel gratitude that my father and his loved ones were spared this new crisis. I have no idea how I would have explained Covid-19 to my dear dad in those last months.

I don’t believe in silver linings, but I have hope, hope that this experience of collective vulnerability, anxiety and loss contributes to creating a more just, compassionate society. That we open our eyes to the suffering that has been all around us before and after Covid-19. That we recognise, and properly remunerate, nurses and carers.

During my dad’s last months, while he was bounced between doctors making contradictory prognosis and predictions, I kept thinking that this is no country for old men. After this is over, let’s start talking about changing that.

Brendan Ó Cathaoir worked at The Irish Times for 35 years. His daughter, Katharina, is an assistant professor of health law at the University of Copenhagen

To reflect the many ways life has changed in Ireland by the coronavirus outbreak, The Irish Times is inviting readers to share their Covid Stories. You can submit yours here

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