Grief and closure in a pandemic
Twenty-six years after my sister’s sudden, untimely death, I still don’t know where her ashes are. As with both my parents, I had no chance to say goodbye before she passed.
Each of us during this pandemic goes through what Dan Sheehan called “hell zones.” Mine have to do with being reminded of the “lack of closure” that comes with a loved one dying in an ICU they can’t visit, a funeral they can’t have, a shiva they can’t sit.
A few years after my Mother passed away (thankfully, as she wanted, in her sleep), my Dad and I had a phone conversation about dying alone. In my father’s view, everyone dies alone, because they are the only one taking their last breath. I shouldn’t worry, he told me, about rushing home to beat his passing to say goodbye.
News of covid-19 deaths brought that conversation back to mind — and along with it, a sad acknowledgment that in my immediate family, until a few months after my Dad’s passing, I’ve never had anything resembling a goodbye.
My sister (officially) died from a heart attack at home at age 41. There was always a nagging suspicion that her second husband may have, at the very least, hurried it along, waiting hours to call an ambulance as my sister agonized on the sofa with what he said she said was indigestion.
My parents and I gathered at her house to go through her things, devastated by the sudden death and distressed by unspoken suspicions and nagging questions: didn’t she look ashen over Christmas, hadn’t she seen a doctor for tests recently? But there was no real ritual. I recall gathering in an auditorium of some sort, somewhere I can’t recall, with some kind of “memorial” service if you can call a few remarks in front of rows of folding chairs that. One of her three children from her first marriage — I’ve no idea which — has her ashes.
My father discovered my mother’s body in her bedroom the morning of March 26, 2001. I got a call at work later that morning, but by the time I got on a plane and arrived back in western New York, she’d already been cremated. I was told it was too expensive to keep her body on ice at the morgue for me to say goodbye. I’d been able to spend 6 months at my parents’ home as an adult, in between careers, and so, I told myself, it was okay. I kicked myself for not responding to my Mom’s request to tell her what I remember about my childhood and her parenting.
For 9 years after that, my Mom’s ashes rested in a large urn on top of the TV in the living room. A fact which somehow my mind decided not to register AT ALL in the day or two I spent at “home” during Christmas. My father’s health went on a steady decline, my brother saddled with the 90-minute round trip drive from semi-rural western New York to suburban Buffalo to check in, visit, and eventually, discover the evidence of his decline: stains on the carpet from falling and spilling pop — or worse.
The Christmas before he died, Dad told me he didn’t want me to come home, because he didn’t want me to see him doing so poorly. I reached out to his doctor, who assured me things were “okay;” the same dumb-ass doctor who assured my brother, as my Dad lay in intensive care, hours away from death, that Dad was a fighter and he was going to make it. Five hundred miles away, I didn’t even know he was in the hospital. My brother told me that he didn’t want me to be called.
Once again, I flew up to Buffalo. Once again, nothing remained but ashes. As my brother and I started cleaning out the house, I found calendars in his bedside drawer. Every single day for nine years until the last week of his life, my Dad wrote “I miss you Lor,” with a ♡.
Eventually, in the summer after my Dad’s passing in 2010–16 years after my sister passed, 9 years after my mother died — we had a ceremony: interring my parents’ co-mingled ashes into a crypt, with a handful of family and friends in attendance. Finally, a goodbye.