We’ve all lost something to this pandemic—more significantly than we probably realize. We’re living in surreal uncharted territory, and I have a hunch that many of us are unsure of how we feel or why we feel it these days. I was. Then an insight by my wife and an Avengers movie, of all things, helped me break out of the loop of unprocessed grief.
My wife was on the phone with her best friend when she made a passing comment that startled me. She remarked that so many people had lost loved ones to COVID-19 without being able to grieve their losses, it reminded her of “The Snap.”
“You know in the Avengers Endgame movie when Thanos snapped his fingers?” she said into the phone. I knew. Without hearing anything more, I knew—the scene where Thanos wipes out half the world’s population. Everyone else gets left behind. The survivors have to sift through the ashes of what had once been their lives. The whole world tries somehow to “move on,” but they don’t know how to do it. I thought to myself, “Yes. That is exactly what this is like.” In hindsight, the movie looks almost prophetic.
In mid-March, when the shutdown came, we all lost someone or something. Friends and family. Jobs and businesses. Classrooms, graduation ceremonies, and proms. Weddings and funerals. Hugs and handshakes. Even just the rhythm of relationships, to be able to see people you care about regularly, to do things together, to go to movies, or see the Reds, or go to church. Physically do these things, not do them on a screen. People talk about a “new normal.” I bet most still don’t feel “normal,” and maybe they wonder if they ever will again. It just feels like a piece of your heart has gone missing. The life I knew all vanished at once—as if at the snap of someone else’s fingers. How will we ever find our way back home?
For me, the loss is recent and stark. Last week COVID-19 took my dad. He was 82 and pretty frail. Congestive heart failure and kidney failure were his two most serious ailments. While he and everyone else knew he would eventually lose his health battle, the end was not in sight. Then the virus came.
Mentally he was still sharp and fully present. My dad was a pretty good chess player. I have never beaten him in my life. Not for lack of trying. The closest I came was during a visit in January. I had him on the ropes, but the endgame was never my forte. He managed to turn the tables at the last minute and kept his streak alive. He was not the kind of guy to just let you win. You had to earn it.
A few weeks ago, my dad fell and broke his hip, sending my low-grade worry into a kind of anxious waiting. I didn’t say anything, but I was well aware of the danger posed inside of elder care facilities by COVID-19. I think Dad knew it too. It struck me that he was worried about the virus and that fear was coming out sideways. At one point in rehab, Dad got pretty loopy from his pain meds and was convinced he had been kidnapped for ransom. He kept ordering me to come to the hospital to get him out of there.
A few days later, when they finally reduced his pain meds, he came back to normal. We never spoke about the virus. We talked about what he was doing to get himself rehabbed. Dad was a very determined man, and he was fighting through the pain to make himself sit up. He wanted to get back home and be with my stepmom again. She had just gotten one of those “I’ve-fallen-and-I-cant-get-up” buttons, which she kept accidentally hitting and summoning the fire department. I told Dad that she was only doing it so she could ogle the firemen, so he better get back on his feet soon.
That was the last conversation I ever had with him. During medical transport from rehab to a longer-term care facility, his oxygen levels suddenly dropped. He was rushed back to the hospital. Within a few hours, my sister texted me that they had intubated him. He was on a ventilator. The doctor said he had contracted the virus.
I knew the end was near.
I love my dad. I also don’t want to sound like my relationship with him was perfect. It wasn’t. I spent a long time—years—being mad at him. My childhood was pretty rough, and I blamed him. It took me far longer than I am comfortable admitting to realize that my father was a messy, broken human being just like me.
Still, about 15 years ago, I guess I decided to grow up a bit. I started doing the sometimes hard work of reconnecting and trying to accept and love my dad as he is, even with his flaws and faults.
When word came about the ventilator, I thought about how long I have been praying for my dad—something like 35 years. Especially at the beginning, when I was a much younger man, I was always asking for God to change him. It felt ironic and poignant at the same time to realize in the end, God had answered my prayers mostly by making changes in me, not my dad.
The morning of the day he died, I became sort of emotionally impaired. I didn’t know what to do. Flying out to see him was out because the hospital ICU would be on lockdown. They wouldn’t let me in to see him. I didn’t think I could get there in time anyway. By God’s grace, a friend who took time to check-in and listen suggested I try to call the hospital, maybe they could take a phone to him. I thought it was worth a try. Even though I knew his blood pressure was by then 60 over 40, and he was not going to be responsive, I felt like maybe he would somehow still hear me.
I got the number of the hospital. I told them who I was and that my dad was in their ICU. A nurse whose name I do not know and who I hope God gives a special place in heaven understood what I was asking for immediately. She graciously offered to take the phone to him. She had to “suit up” in her protective gear first. After a few minutes that felt like hours, she put me on speaker and set the phone where he could hear me. Then she stepped away.
I think maybe this was the most difficult thing I have ever done. I tried hard, but I really couldn’t keep the emotion and desperation out of my voice. I told Dad I would take care of the people I thought he would be most worried about. I told him it was OK to go, that he should call out to Jesus. I told him I would meet him in “the back left corner of heaven.” Then I said goodbye. By the end of the day, I received word the doctors followed my dad’s advance directive. They shut off the ventilator, and he was gone.
After I cried, I had a conference call with my siblings. I learned there wouldn’t be a funeral any time soon. The virus took that away too. There was very little more to do.
My wife and kids were understanding. I got a ton of condolence emails, a few cards, one friend even stopped by the house to say how sorry he was. There was a lot of kindness in those gestures. Then things went from chaos to quiet. I returned to life on lockdown. Just as if nothing had happened.
The problem was the whole thing never stopped feeling impossible like it couldn’t really have occurred after all. I kept getting this feeling; maybe it was just a bad dream that I should have woken up from by now. I couldn’t nail down in my head that dad was really gone. I alternated between grief and denial like a fluorescent tube light flickering and humming but never entirely turning on.
I really do wonder, right now, many people are still caught in a kind of loop with unprocessed grief? How many want to move on but are stuck for reasons they cannot put their finger on? There is so much to mourn right now for so many people. Yet actually being able to do the mourning maybe has never been harder.
Feelings don’t come and go at our beck and call. They seem to have a life of their own, just as our relationships do. Images and symbols have a weight to them, like ballast. They remind us of so much more than what words can do justice to. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is lean into reminders of what meant the most to us, so we feel the loss. We need tears sometimes to help us find our way to what is next. Whatever is next.
I wonder if what so many people in the world need is some kind of memorial service.
Our lives were supposed to be “paused” because of the virus. Now though, we have a growing, dark realization that much of our old lives might actually never come back at all. But how can that be? People need to grieve the loss, or they get stuck in denial.
We lost things that matter, that were irreplaceable, that were precious. These losses ought to be mourned. It may be that until and unless we take time, energy, and effort to mourn our losses that moving forward may be a very difficult business. There is a reason King Solomon wrote these words:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:.
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance…
I turned a corner, I think, earlier this week. A moment came when the denial in my heart came to a sudden and perceptible stop. It was odd. A friend sent some flowers over to our house, where my wife placed them on the dining room table. These.were not the kind of flowers you get for an anniversary or mom on Mother’s Day. It was a bouquet of white lilies, white roses, and white carnations—funeral flowers.
I didn’t really want to look, but they were hard to ignore. They were bright and beautiful. Their fragrance filled the whole dining room and kept catching my attention. I began to stare at them in spite of myself. Suddenly my mind felt a flood of memories and images. For just a minute or so, I remembered vividly the sound of low organ music and the feel of plush furniture placed oddly around a sort of living room with a casket against the wall. I heard the hushed tones of emotionally drained people wearing nice clothes. A funeral home was exactly where I went in my heart. I smelled the lilies. I saw his coffin and the people who should have been at dad’s funeral.
An instant was somehow enough to help. I could feel some of the weight fall from my shoulders. Something I carried was no longer with me. I knew dad was really gone, and I felt like I could let go. I guess I hadn’t realized how desperately I was fighting to keep his death from turning out to be real.
I still have more to process, but I seem to be able to keep working on it now, a little at a time. Tonight after dinner, our family sat in the living room, and each of us showed the others something that reminded us of dad. My youngest girl had a teddy bear her grandad gave her years ago. Her sister had a sailing hat from time on the sailboat together. My wife had a painting of sailboats at a dock he gave as a wedding gift. Finally, I showed them an old wooden toolbox my grandfather made for my dad, and my dad gave it to me. We talked about him. We prayed. I cried again. The ache is still there but not quite as insistent as before. I think I can forward and take part of Dad with me now.