Dying In a Time of Covid-19

Of the more than 170,000 individuals who have died of coronavirus globally, I happen not to know any of them. But it does not make it easier for me. The thought that I or any of my loved one can be one of them – God forbid – is scary. I am also aware that behind this number are parents, spouses, siblings, children, relatives, and friends who are grieving.

I’ve written three coronavirus-related articles during the last five weeks for my newspaper column. The first one dealt with how to live during this time of Covid-19. The second was a reflection on where God is during these unprecedented times. The third was about celebrating one’s birthday amidst this crisis.

This article is the most difficult to write because it involves people dying. Dying these days is like being stabbed with a two-edged sword. Because of fear of contamination, a dying patient is oftentimes left alone, with no opportunity for human connection and comfort offered by family members.

Family members, on the other hand, cannot even say, “Goodbye” or offer any expression of love or thanks for the many good things that the patient has done. Because of coronavirus, many hospitals do not allow visitors.

It must be an agonizing and painful ordeal for both the patient and his or her family to experience death in this manner. At a time – and it’s the last time – that someone longs for and wants to touch or hug the people who matter most to him or her, they are nowhere. They may be there in spirit, but when someone is dying, there’s nothing like being physically present with the dying.

True, family members may glance at the patient through a glass window or a computer screen for the last time and silently bid goodbye, but this “virtual approach” can never take the place of physical presence and connection. For some, it might even cause more pain, akin to being emotionally tortured.

Difficult and painful as it is, the reality of death during this pandemic highlights the need to have a conversation about death.

Filipinos generally don’t talk about death; to do so is a form of premonition. This pandemic is a great reminder that we better be prepared. Dying alone is one of the consequences of this airborne disease that is so lethal. It is now the new normal.

I was thankful when my father was near death because I was by his side. I told him to squeeze my hand and he did. I whispered to him that my wife and I were home and he nodded. For one fleeting moment I was able to communicate with my father. That was enough for me. He knew he was not alone.

With my mother it was totally a different experience. She died in her sleep. It was around three in the morning that she took her last breath. No one was by her side. She was alone. However, the expression of love that I saw from my mother’s friends and relatives a few days before she died was enough for me to accept the end of her struggle to hang on to life.

In a sense I was lucky because I was able to attend the funeral services for my parents. But now coronavirus has changed the ways we mourn and honor the dead. The number of family members who can attend a funeral service is limited to a few and they even have to maintain social distancing. Stories of bodies being cremated without close relatives even seeing them have become the norm for coronavirus deaths.

I wish that I had better things to say to the thousands of people whose loved ones died of coronavirus. Unfortunately, I have none.

I wish these people could experience what I experienced when my parents were dying. But I know they could not.

Given the new normal that we are in, we need to start talking about death because when we do so we also talk about life – about the things that are important to a person to live a full and meaningful life.

I am guilty of taking death for granted. What I have learned from reading the stories of those whose loved ones have died of coronavirus is the urgent need to know our loved ones. We should know what they want when they can no longer speak because they are hooked to a ventilator. We should know their wishes because honoring their wishes is the best thing we can do.

So, don‘t put it off for too long. Know your loved ones. Tell them the things you want to tell them if you still have not done so. Ask them what quality of life is acceptable to them. What are their hopes? And, more importantly, tell them that you love them.

Time is short. But we can do certain things now that can make the lives of our loved ones meaningful both now and well into their last day.

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the famous Swiss-American psychiatrist and author of the best-selling On Death and Dying, wrote: “It’s not really the dying that’s so hard; dying takes no skill and no understanding. It can be done by anyone. What is hard is living—living until you die; whether your death is imminent or a long way off . . . the real challenge is to fully live the time you have.”