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A complicated grief

In April and May, I received news of the passing of a brother-in-law, a high school classmate, a former colleague, the husband of a dear mentor, the principal of a pre-school where my daughter attended, a churchmate choir member, my long-time hairstylist, and a renowned apologist-friend. These obituaries reached me once or twice a week, even when I don’t use social media. There could be others missing in this list of people whom I shall miss. And as far as I know, none of them was reported to have died of coronavirus. Their untimely demise just happened during the COVID-19 season. Yet, it was strange to have received so many death notices in such a short time.

What I learned from the bereaved family members was how they had to grapple with layers of complication in their grief, whether the cause of death was coronavirus or not. Depending on government or hospital regulations, many of them were not allowed to stay with the dying even in their last moments, while others were only allowed to visit at the very last moments. Through the kindness of nurses, some were only able to see their loved ones long-distance on the phone, as they said their last goodbyes, weeping.

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Such heart-wrenching scenarios have been repeated in hospitals around the world for people who have lost a family member to coronavirus. For many, the same hospital visit was their first and last time to see their beloved on their deathbed, on a life-support machine gasping for breath, the dying rendered almost unrecognizable by the disease. There is shock and grief at the same time, with no time to process one’s feelings.

Because the remains had to be quickly cremated, while crematoriums were not too willing to accept those who died of COVID-19 and there were further bans on wakes, funerals, and burials, the bereaved felt a lack of closure, which is so important in the grieving process. To be able to hold the hands of the dying, speak words of love, sing songs of comfort—these are part of the grieving process that was not afforded them. Understandably necessary, but still regrettably.

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It is a shame if, rather than showing our sympathy, we are wasting this unique time and not using it for deeper reflections on the meaning of life and death and understanding the extent and limitations of the human spirit, by distracting ourselves with gossip on the trivialities and vanities of celebrities. Perhaps, for a change, the evening news could devote a portion of their airtime to paying tribute to the lives lost, be they frontliners or ordinary citizens, like what “Anderson Cooper 360°” did on CNN.

We may not know how long before we shall see the light at the end of this long dark tunnel, but I do hope this favorite hymn (by Henry Lyte-William Monk), which I sang often for my mom when she was dying two years ago and on that morning when her remains were brought out of the house, would bring you some comfort—the consolation that perhaps, in their last moments, your loved one was not afraid, knowing Someone else was with him or her:

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee
In life, in death, oh Lord, abide with me.

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Grace Shangkuan Koo, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of the Philippines, a member of Union Church of Manila, a speaker, and the author of seven books. Her latest book is “In the Triumph Song of Life: Turning Adversity to Strength.”

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