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I Thought I’d Get to See My Mother Again. Then the Pandemic Hit

10 minute read
Chung is the author of the memoirs A Living Remedy and All You Can Ever Know

This year on my mother’s birthday, in October, I woke up from one of many dreams I’ve had about her since her death. I’d been sitting with family and friends in my grandmother’s backyard, our lawn chairs scattered across a carpet of sun-dappled grass. We were all talking, sharing memories of my mom. I don’t remember the specific stories, but I know there was joy, more laughter than tears—even though, in my dream, my mom was also gone.

Like so many grieving families in 2020, we haven’t been able to gather or mourn together. My mother died of cancer in May, and my husband, kids and I had to watch the small funeral service via livestream from across the country. Until the day before, I wasn’t sure we would be able to do even that—two months into the pandemic, the funeral-home representative told me they had never set up a livestream before. My mom’s priest had privacy concerns about filming, and said it was already difficult to choose who among my mother’s many church friends could attend. An additional person filming would, he said, “take a place that could have gone to another mourner.”

When I heard this, I caught my breath and let the silence stretch. I didn’t want to get angry. I didn’t have the energy. My mom loved her church community, who had been her family too—no doubt one reason she stayed at home instead of coming to live with me when I asked—and I was grateful to them for being there for her when I wasn’t, doing what I couldn’t. But I was her only child.

“You have four spots you wouldn’t if my husband, my kids and I were able to be there,” I pointed out. “Can’t you just think of the person filming as taking my place?”

There was a pause. “Of course,” he said. “You’re absolutely right. I’m sure we can work something out.”

The last time I saw my mother in person was in late January, when my 12-year-old and I flew out to visit her. We had seen her just a month earlier at Christmas, and I had also planned trips for March and April.

But by mid-March, visiting felt impossible, especially traveling 3,000 miles from my high-infection area to my mother’s small town, where there were almost no cases. Mask wearing was becoming more common but was far from universal. To even attempt the trip responsibly would mean two weeks of quarantine at either end, in addition to however long I spent with my mom. Our home life just wasn’t set up for one of us to parent alone for weeks or months, particularly while working remotely and dealing with anxious kids and distance learning. And what if I carried the virus to my mom? What if I passed it to her caregivers, her hospice nurse? What if I gave it to my husband or kids, or someone far more vulnerable whose name I would never know, whose illness and death I would never be aware of causing?

Soon after attending my mom’s funeral via livestream, I would see ads welcoming tourists back to Disney World in a state where infections were surging.

So I postponed one trip, then the next. Surely, I kept thinking, enough people would do the right thing—stay home if they could, wear masks when they couldn’t—and we’d all get a reprieve. Instead, state after state began to reopen, even as the virus kept raging. Soon after attending my mom’s funeral via livestream, I would see ads welcoming tourists back to Disney World in a state where infections were surging.

My mother was cared for by her sister and sister-in-law, assisted at night by hired aides. I did my best to handle her finances, help manage home health care, send flowers and letters and gifts. When I called, I knew I was burdening her caregivers with still more tasks: giving me updates, seeing whether my mom could speak with me, bringing her the phone or tablet. I could not stop calling, worrying or apologizing to everyone.

One day, her hospice nurse called me with news that seemed too good to be true. “She had a great day! She’s such a fighter—she has a real chance at more quality time.” My mother called us shortly after, and my husband and kids and I told her we were glad she’d had a good day and we wished we were with her. She spoke slowly, with some effort, and sometimes she would forget to hold the tablet at the best angle, so we could see only the top of her head. But after hearing about her day—sitting up, eating ice cream, even joking with people—I told myself that she was worn out; she could still rally.

“Never, never forget how much I love you,” she said to us. It was the last time we’d hear her voice.

Since she died, many people have asked me if I feel a lack of “closure” because of all the moments missed. My father died 2½ years ago, and I was at his funeral, and I still don’t feel anything like closure. It’s an open wound. It always will be.

In many ways, I know that I am fortunate: I was able to help support my mother financially during her illness, something I would have been unable to do to a meaningful degree two or three years ago. I know that she was cared for at the end by people who loved her. And she and I did have a chance to say goodbye—the last time I saw her in person, I asked her forgiveness, told her I loved her and was lucky to be her daughter. I kept saying those same things, over and over, on all the calls we had before she died. I’ll always wish I could have been there, or that she’d been here, but I’m not holding on to anything I wish I’d told her—in the end, there was nothing broken or left unsaid between us.

What so many of us who’ve lost family members and close friends during the pandemic are facing is not grief or trauma deferred. It’s not a lack of emotion at all, but a swelling tide of it, unchecked by the reassurance, the scant but real comfort, that can and does often accompany the rituals we are usually able to participate in when a loved one dies. These rituals can still leave us feeling incomplete, but they can also act as signposts, guiding us from one phase of mourning to another. When my father died, being at his funeral, seeing his casket lowered into the ground, crying with my mother were all things that helped me to acknowledge and feel the loss, to begin to process and live with it.

I never imagined I would lose my mother without those familiar touchstones. I watched her funeral from my living-room couch, squished between my husband and children, the same couch where we’d all crowded for our last call with her. There was no gathering or reception after, no hugs and fellowship with our family and friends, no stories exchanged in anyone’s yard. When the live feed cut out, I retrieved a vase of garden-grown snapdragons that a kind neighbor had left at our door, and then we ate the lunch my husband had prepared. My 12-year-old and I took a quiet walk together. I didn’t see or talk to anyone outside my household.

These rituals can still leave us feeling incomplete, but they can also act as signposts, guiding us from one phase of mourning to another.

The rest of the day proceeded like any other, like most days have since: I do my job, I help my 9-year-old with school, I wear my mother’s rings and take long walks and try to keep alive all the plants I received as sympathy gifts. Our kids have been asking for a dog for a while, and 2020 felt like the year to say yes (“We need a win,” I told a friend), so now we have a new, chaotic but adorable family member to focus on. “I think Grandma knows we’re getting a dog and is excited for us,” one of my kids announced after we made the decision. “I just think that somehow, she still knows about the big, important things.” I told her that made sense to me, and amid the sadness and grief, I felt glad that we all still talk about my mom often.

For so many of us now, the personal traumas of this pandemic are constantly compounding as the crisis stretches on, as we remain cut off from some of our loved ones far longer than we once imagined possible. These losses will represent still more detritus for us to grapple with—individually, within our families and communities, and as a nation—in safer, hopefully healthier days ahead. But that doesn’t mean we can’t feel and find ways to honor our grief now.

On my mother’s birthday, I wrote her a letter, looked through family photos, bought a nice meal to eat with my husband and children—nothing fancy, nothing my mom had ever made for me, just something I knew she would have enjoyed. I couldn’t visit her grave, with the headstone I chose to match my dad’s, but I sent flowers to a relative who agreed to place them there for me. I ordered from the same florist who had designed my mother’s memorial flowers, and they promised to use the same colors. The two arrangements were made in different seasons, with different flowers in bloom, so of course they could not be exactly the same. Nor can a livestreamed funeral provide exactly the same experience, the same companionship or comfort, as one attended in person. But neither the devastating loss nor the depth of gratitude I feel because I had such a parent can be undermined by the unforeseen, by pandemic or by distance. She’ll always be my mom, and I’ll always miss her, and in that sense, her absence and my grief are precisely what I would have expected.

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