Grief in a pandemic: ‘Not being able to see him in his final hours was heartbreaking’

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The way we grieve our dead, whether they are victims of coronavirus or not, has changed utterly in a matter of weeks. Here, readers share their stories

Final goodbyes to loved ones over FaceTime. Socially distanced funerals limited to immediate family only. No wakes, no removals, no visitors to support those in mourning.

Could we have possibly imagined, even in late February, that this would be the new reality for funerals in Ireland? The way we grieve our dead – whether they are victims of coronavirus or not – has changed utterly in a matter of weeks.

Following an open call, readers have been sending us their personal experiences of bereavement during this pandemic. In a moment, we share some of your stories. First, though, an invitation to contribute to an Irish Times series.

To memorialise the victims of Covid-19, The Irish Times plans to publish a series of short obituaries of those who have died from the virus. If you would like to pay tribute to a family member by writing a short piece about their life, or share their story with a journalist, you can find out more here.

Your stories

Geraldine Eskinazi, San Francisco: ‘I told my Mam on speaker phone that I loved her’
My 88-year-old mam Brigid Sreenan was in decent health when she moved into a nursing home in January. I flew home from San Francisco to make sure she settled in, putting up pictures of the grandkids, and labelling her clothes for the laundry. We were welcomed by lovely staff members and nurses. My brother Dermot and I were so excited for her to avail of all the social activities, as she loved the “craic” and being around people.

Two weeks ago, my sweet mam was diagnosed with Covid-19. She died on Saturday, April 11th.

Brigid Sreenan
Brigid Sreenan

This plague robs you of moments you can’t comprehend. Stroking her hair when she is sick. Holding her hand when she is dying. Supporting my brother at the burial when my mam was lowered into the ground beside my dad.

As she lay there with laboured breathing, I told my mam on speaker phone how grateful I was to have her as my mother, and that I loved her. The nurses and staff were amazing, and spent so much time with her in her last few days. They are my heroes.

Brendan Hayes
Brendan Hayes, whose sister died

Brendan Hayes, Co Clare: ‘I sat at home alone listening to a choir while her funeral took place’
On Monday March 30th, I was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer following two days in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. On Sunday April 5th, my sister died; she had been a resident in a Co Clare nursing home. Her death wasn’t due to the virus.

Her body was cremated last Wednesday, with just my two brothers in attendance. I sat in my house alone, listening to a choir of Greek Orthodox monks, while her funeral and cremation took place.

I live alone and am totally isolated. Only last Saturday did I meet my brother; we sat a safe distance apart around a fire for the Shine Your Light event, to remember our sister and talk about my fatal illness. It’s been a devastating few weeks.

Next Tuesday I’m returning to St Vincent’s. I’m sure we’ll be stopped and questioned on the way (a friend will be driving my car), but at least I’ll get to learn of a likely chemotherapy treatment plan. I’m cocooned at home; I receive free meals from Master Chefs, two deliveries a week, but taste and appetite are diminished.

My late sister had enduring mental health problems all her life, yet she was loved dearly by us all. She’s at rest now, dying peacefully among great carers. I try to pass the time reading poetry, meditating and keeping a journal, and the sun is shining again.

Hannah O’Reilly, Co Kildare: ‘Nanny was treated for Covid-19, so it would be a closed coffin’
On Friday March 6th my nanny took a turn. Mother of six and grandmother of 21, the best cook and biggest joker I knew, Anne Lahart had been living in a nursing home for 18 months with dementia. The nursing home gave her new-found independence; she was always busy dancing, doing art classes and playing bingo, and had made a bunch of new friends.

On that Friday, I got a big hug from her, and the doctor said she would be ok. That day a ban on all visitors to nursing homes was announced. Phones rang off the hook, with worried family members asking when they would be able to see their loved ones again.

Hannah O’Reilly with her grandmother Anne Lahart: ‘After my nanny passed away, we stood two metres apart, not allowed to hug or share tissues for our tears’
Hannah O’Reilly with her grandmother Anne Lahart

I became one of those worried family members. We called by the window of her room, and had a small chat and a big wave. Daily conversations with the nurses became worrying as she developed a cough.

On March 28th, my mum and her siblings were called in to say their final goodbyes. Two at a time, covered head to toe, hair net, face mask, gown, gloves and the rest, they made their way in. I stood in the car park longing to say my final goodbye to the lady who taught me how to bake and rubbed my head before I went to sleep. I was stripped of this.

After my nanny passed away, we stood two metres apart, not allowed to hug or share tissues for our tears. The nurse came out and told us that because my nanny was being treated for Covid-19, it would be a closed coffin. There would be no wake and it would be straight to the cemetery for burial and prayers.

My heart breaks for my nanny, a lady of good faith who would have only wanted the “normal” send-off. Who would have thought this would be something people would be stripped of?

Christy Boyle
Christy Boyle

Niamh Boyle, Co Donegal: ‘Neighbours stood at their gateways and waved him on’
My dad, Christy Boyle, died on April 3rd. He had endured much illness over the last five years, but his death was sudden and shocking.

After dialysis on a Wednesday, he was kept in Letterkenny University Hospital with severe back pain. We could not visit him. On Friday a nurse rang and asked me to come to the hospital. I cried the whole way. He was in acute liver failure. Dad accepted his fate. He even joked, “at least I didn’t get Covid-19!”

I never saw the doctor or nurse’s faces. Behind their masks they were upset too. This was not how they usually did things. Dad asked to go home, and he arrived to his beloved Marameelan by ambulance at 6pm. He died five hours later with Mum, his son Colm, brother John and me by his side, all two metres apart.

They took his remains away. The goodbye was rushed. We were all in shock. I can’t remember if I slept. My sister could not come from England. His brother and sisters were cocooning. On Saturday we had a “Zoom wake” with close family. It was funny, sad and utterly chaotic. It helped. People laughed and people cried. The phone kept ringing.

Mass was scheduled for 10am on Sunday. We watched via webcam. It was my first time attending a funeral mass in my pyjamas. There’s a lot to be said for it. The burial was at 12.30pm. His brothers and sisters broke out of their cocoons to say goodbye. It was a sunny day with a slight breeze. In normal times it would have been a good day for sowing potatoes or paring bogs. We all stood apart. There were no hugs. We all travelled alone.

From our house to the burial ground, neighbours stood at their gateways and waved him on. One stood holding an upright oar to symbolise Dad’s many years skiff racing. Old pals stood outside the Strandview Bar in Maghery. It was a calm, quiet and dignified procession. It was upsetting. It was beautiful.

The burial was simple. Just us. A cousin took a video to send to Glasgow and New York. No repast in the community centre, no toasts in the bar. A quiet house and three cups of strong tea. The phone started to ring.

My father was a quiet man. He loved his family and he loved this special place in Donegal. He would have liked the send-off. That has given us some comfort.

Arthur Binchy
Arthur Binchy

Suhaila Binchy, Dublin: ‘As a grieving mother, the lockdown has been a blessing in disguise’
Late into the night of March 16th, we lost our son Arthur, born March 13th. We were in a bubble of sorrow for the loss of our baby, set against the joy of the chance to meet him for four days and three nights. During that life-changing time for us, the world outside our hospital room transformed, too.

Our first experience of social distancing began with religious rites provided from a safe distance. We organised a funeral for the first time in our lives – remotely. Funereal cars could not be provided due to distancing rules. The tiny wicker coffin would be delivered to our door.

We brought our baby home on St Patrick’s Day. There were no parades blocking our route. No one could visit. In that we found silver linings. I did not have to spend the last remaining time I had with my son entertaining others. We did not need a hearse; we could bring him to his final resting place ourselves, as his parents. That small act gave us some sense of accomplishment, a way to do something for our child before we no longer could.

During Arthur’s burial, eight mourners sat separately with the exception of our three-year old, who was beside us. It was a beautiful spring day. There were no facilities open, so we went home. Could I have sat through a meal elsewhere? Not a chance.

At home, everyone socialised oddly, standing two metres apart. Everyone was family but the virus dictated that we acted like plagued strangers.

As a grieving mother, the lockdown in the weeks since has been a blessing in disguise. My husband has been able to take more time off, and work from home. Our daughter has been with us every minute, making us laugh and keeping us sane. In an ordinary uninfected world, I would have been home alone.

Mary (Moira) Ogle
Mary (Moira) Ogle

Brendan Ogle, Co Louth: ‘People in the car park followed the service on their phones’
My mam Mary Ogle passed away on March 21st. She was wife to the late Robert (Bobby) and mother to nine children, two of whom predeceased her. Her daughter Briege, my beautiful and beloved sister, died just five weeks before her.

When Mam was brought home, the neighbours of Marian Park came out and stood silently at their own doors and gardens. Nothing was said. But they were there.

Mam’s service was in the Redemptorist church in Dundalk, limited to immediate family sitting two per row. The service was relayed live on the internet. As we left the almost-empty church we spotted some people we know in the car park following the service on their phones. All over Ireland and beyond, people silently followed. We felt their presence.

We went for a short picnic afterwards to Port, close to where Mam grew up. It was just flasks of coffee and sandwiches, some chatting and remembering, distanced from one another. Just a few weeks later, other grieving families cannot come together in such a simple way.

I should be able to go around Dundalk and absorb the losses I have just suffered. I want to go with my sister to the nursing home and empty Mam’s room and take her clothes to a charity shop. I want to go to my childhood home and sit with memories washing over me with every photograph, room, creak on the stairs. But I can’t.

Harry O'Callaghan
Harry O'Callaghan

Emma O’Grady: ‘No one could get on a plane and go to the UK to be there’
When we heard of my uncle’s diagnosis with Covid-19, we were very shocked as he was a healthy man. Living in Marlow in the UK with his wife Frances and their three children and two grandchildren, Harry O’Callaghan visited Cork often and came home for every family event. He loved to stay with his sister Noreen.

After a week, he passed away. We were all devastated. My father was heartbroken. No one could get on a plane to the UK. My dad could not go to his sister or brothers for support. The grieving process is halted completely. 

Keith Osborne
Keith Osborne

Martin Osborne, Co Carlow: ‘Keith was my younger brother. He was only 28’
On March 10th, I’d had enough of scrolling social media reading stories about Covid-19; my anxiety soared every time I picked up my phone, so I switched it off. I suggested to my husband that we break away from our computers and go for a walk with our dogs.

At 4pm I saw eight missed calls from my mother. I assumed something had happened to my grandad. He’s been undergoing treatment for cancer. Mam sounded distraught. “It’s Keith,” she said. “He’s dead.”

Keith was my younger brother. He was only 28. He died suddenly and unexpectedly. It sounds bizarre and it’s still a haze, but in hindsight we were lucky we were able to have a funeral for him.

As a family, we haven’t been able to grieve. Restrictions on social distancing suddenly became real that week. I live in Carlow and my mother lives in Dublin. I haven’t seen her since the funeral. I talk to her on the phone but it’s not the same. I want to hug her and see my brothers and sisters; none of us can predict when that will be.

Tony Duffy
Tony Duffy

Joan Duffy, Dublin: ‘There were only seven people at the funeral’
My dad, Tony, passed away at 3am on March 25th. It was sudden – he was at home with my mam and she spoke to him for hours afterwards, hoping he’d wake up. I’ll never forget the call at 7.05am. My sister and I rushed to my parents’ house. The paramedics were already there. They all wore masks. The guards arrived shortly after – they couldn’t have been nicer but kept at least two metres away. The doctor then arrived to confirm death. He seemed nervous we might infect him. I felt like screaming that my dad had not had Covid-19.

Dad lay in repose at a funeral home. Nobody visited except for me, my sister, our husbands and my mother. There were only seven people at the funeral on March 28th. Leo Varadkar announced the lockdown the night before, so we weren’t even sure it could go ahead until the morning itself.

The mass was held in Rathmines church, where my parents were married. The service was incredibly sad but intimate; the priest spoke personally about my father. We had a beautiful singer and flowers, but it was hard without friends and family. It would have helped us immensely. Dad deserved that.

The one thing that got me through was my phone – the constant chats with my sister and messages and calls from my friends make me realise that people are there for us.

Ronan O'Connor
Ronan O'Connor

Louise O’Connor, Dublin: ‘The grief has not yet really begun at all’
We lost our father Ronan suddenly on Sunday March 22nd. My 89-year-old grandmother has been unable to hug her loving family members, friends and neighbours since she got the news. In “coming together by staying apart”, we are doing our best to keep her broken heart beating.

My dad had no pallbearers, though there were dozens of sons, brothers, cousins and friends who would have been honoured to take on the role. The church would have been full to the brim, but instead we sat in a tiny group, three to a row, bowed under our grief as the priest’s words, kind and full of love, echoed over us.

We couldn’t tell jokes. We couldn’t go to his local for a slap-up meal, or incant my dad’s favourite “one for the ditch” mantra, knowing full well it was never going to be just “one”. We couldn’t greet softly remembered faces from childhood – so much older now – as neighbours, colleagues and friends filed towards us to tell us how he had done them a kindness or changed the course of their life with some sage advice.

The worst part of grieving through this pandemic is the feeling that the grief has not yet really begun at all. It’s easy to tell ourselves he’s safe in his house – it’s just that his phone is on the blink again.

Margaret Reddy
Margaret Reddy

Fintan Reddy, Dublin: ‘You would be forgiven for thinking we were all strangers’
My mother, Margaret, passed away on March 25th having contracted a “hospital bug” while being treated for colitis. She was admitted on February 24th, one day after her 88th birthday.

For the first 10 days, visiting was normal but this all changed on March 6th. We got to see her three times before she was transferred to the palliative care team. Two days later, she was gone.

Her family in the US, Canada and the UK couldn’t travel to attend the funeral. There would be no wake, no removal. The funeral service was live-streamed so Margaret’s relatives and friends could be in “virtual attendance”.

But for those few of us in the church in Whitehall, it was a very desolate affair, made worse by the dreaded social distancing. Looking around, you would be forgiven for thinking we were all strangers and that Margaret wasn’t loved. It isn’t fair. We’ve attended Margaret’s funeral but it doesn’t feel like we’ve been able to grieve properly. I don’t know that a memorial service at some point in the future can address that.

Roy Anthony Wassell
Roy Anthony Wassell

Sarah Wassell, Co Tipperary: ‘Not being able to see him in his final hours was heartbreaking’
My father passed away on March 24th. He had been in hospital for three weeks prior to going into a nursing home on March 5th. He had terminal cancer. I was allowed to visit the day he entered the nursing home, then told the day after there was a strict no-visit rule. I could call him on the phone there but, due to his deteriorating condition, he was unable to hold a conversation. I was allowed in an hour before he took his last breath.

Not being able to see him in his final weeks, let alone hours, was heartbreaking. We cannot hold any kind of memorial for him, for those who knew and cared for him to attend. Five people attended his funeral instead of hundreds. It’s beyond imaginable how it all played out.

Katrina O'Neill with her father John Murphy, both recently deceased
Katrina O'Neill with her father John Murphy, both recently deceased

Fiona Murphy, Co Cork: ‘We arranged our second funeral in two months’
My little sister and best friend Katrina passed away on February 28th, just seven weeks after our dad, John, died. It was the same day of the first reported Covid-19 case in Ireland. We took little notice of what was happening in the wider world. We arranged our second funeral in two months, and friends and family rallied around once again, bringing food, drink and hugs to the wake.

At the reposal on March 3rd, we shook hands with hundreds of people and started to notice the first Covid-19 measures. Hand sanitiser was available on entering the funeral home and the holy water fonts in the church were closed over. A few friends and family members considered “at risk” could not attend.

We returned to work after bereavement leave, but schools and businesses began to shut and we were all advised to socially distance. Being physically isolated from family members and friends at such an early stage of grief was distressing.

I miss Katrina and Dad every minute. I worry about my Mom, who has lost her husband and child. My siblings who have lost their dad and sister. Katrina’s husband, who has lost his wife and best friend. I worry that I am not doing enough to support them through their grief. We all try to remain emotionally connected through phone calls, video calls and messages.

We count small blessings. When I see what other families are going through now, I am thankful we got to spend time with Dad and Katrina in their final days in Marymount Hospice, without the current restrictions. I am thankful we could hold funerals to celebrate their lives, mark our grief and allow people to give their condolences. People are now being robbed of those opportunities.

Tom McHale Snr
Tom McHale Snr

Triona McHale, Co Mayo: ‘Births, marriages and deaths need noise’
My father, Tom McHale senior, died on March 18th in Castlebar from pulmonary fibrosis. He was born and died in his own home. My brother Dualta, his wife Maria and I had the honour of being with him as he passed.

The texts flew in, voicemail boxes overflowed, but his funeral was isolated and lonely. Sitting two metres apart from siblings in the church was cold but necessary. Births, marriages and deaths need noise.

Our community lined the road to the church in hi-vis vests, holding candles. They couldn’t sympathise or reach out, but they stood there in honour of Dad. I would encourage any community to do this for a bereaved family. It was our solace to see people and know they cared.

Gabrielle Pratt
Gabrielle Pratt

Niall Keady: ‘I helped stream the service and burial via Facebook’
My mother-in-law, Gabrielle Pratt, passed away on Palm Sunday morning, not of Covid-19. She was in ill health and in the care of a nursing home for the past few years.

Gabrielle had two adult children, both married, and five grandchildren. She was a highly regarded member of the Skerries community, and many paid their respects by lining the streets two metres apart as the funeral cortege passed. In normal circumstances, hundreds would have attended the funeral. With only a dozen present in the church, I helped stream the service and burial via Facebook to 150 viewers all over the world, and some literally just outside the church door.

The wake was sombre and muted, nine of us in my brother-in-law’s home. We missed the endless supply of sandwiches and those huge metal teapots with the two handles, relations appearing out of the woodwork, the local publican dropping up “the drink”, young cousins and kids playing together and misbehaving. It’s all usually such a welcome distraction, the stories and craic and sadness and hugs and kisses and sandwiches and tea and whiskey. We attempted to recreate it as much as we could, but it was just not the same.

Marie McCrumlish
Marie McCrumlish

Sarah Judge: ‘The nurses facilitated FaceTime calls and read our letters to her’
I never thought my nana would die alone at 96 years old. One would hope having a large, loving family insulates against such a possibility, never mind the harrowing reality of watching her final hours via a FaceTime call.

Nana did not die of Covid-19, but she entered her final days when limited visiting times implemented in the early days of the pandemic were restricted to no visits at all. Bringing her home was not an option as palliative care in the community was not available in the current circumstances.

My mother was allowed a short visit in her final hours. The nurses and carers, despite battling a pandemic, took time to facilitate FaceTime calls and read our letters to her.

The hours after her death brought the uphill task of finding an undertaker who would facilitate our wish to bring Nana home for a final night, of finding a florist and a singer. Family members were unable to travel home. My brother and I were the only grandchildren present. On the morning of her funeral, we had to take branches of cherry blossom from a neighbour’s tree to adorn the hearse. The funeral procession was just five relatives, all walking two metres apart down the street she lived on.

Her coffin could not be carried as distancing had to be observed. Some family friends stood outside the church but did not enter. There was no shaking of hands. No hugs or kisses; no stories exchanged from friends or neighbours; no raising of a glass or a song sung in her honour at a wake.

Have we given her the send-off she deserved? Did we do her proud? My Nana would say “whatever will be will be”. She was not a woman for show or unnecessary attention. The pared-back nature of the funeral mass and burial allowed an intimacy and class that was synonymous with my Nana. It allowed us to focus on the value of her life, the impact she had on us all and the unbearable loss that we continue to feel.

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