Grief From Six Feet Apart
In April of last year my healthy, skiing-or-biking-every-day dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. After his diagnostic brain surgery, the doctor told us the average life expectancy for someone with glioblastoma was 18 months. It felt like a punch in the stomach. Eighteen months would never be enough time, but I soothed myself with the fact that the average was 18 months. My dad had always been exceptionally above average–not in ways that meant he’s smarter or more successful than others, he just loved better than anyone I have ever met —surely we would blow past that “average” diagnosis.
Ten months later, in February, before COVID-19 was a blip on the global radar, my dad started a new chemo treatment. I went into full virus doomsday prep, and we quickly realized the chemo my dad had started was not helping, and in fact, was bringing his quality of life down. COVID-19, Coronavirus, hoarding, toilet paper, Wuhan, these hot new words were buzzing everywhere. I put the majority of my anxiety about my dad’s declining health into getting a three month supply of food and began hoarding any time I had left with him. I figured if I never left his side, it would minimize the amount of times I’d have to say goodbye.
It’s hard to say goodbye to someone every time you see them.
As soon as it was clear to everyone my dad didn’t have much longer to live and shelter-in-place orders were being issued, we all shifted into a new kind of panic: Would we be able to have a funeral? Would my grandmas be able to say goodbye to him? They are in the high-risk group and we had hospice nurses in and out of the house. Could we risk losing them? But could we risk not letting him see his loved ones? I never imagined I would face these impossible decisions at such a frustrating and terrifying time. I kept wishing my dad could just hold on for two more weeks until we were all back to normal. If I could eliminate the massive anxiety I felt around COVID-19, maybe I could begin to handle the anxiety I had thinking about life without my dad.
Everyone washed, sanitized, cleaned, and cried as we tried to keep ourselves healthy so we could spend time with each other while we still had each other. And because no one could work, we had all had time to just be together. It’s the one thing I will always be grateful for. For all the wreckage COVID brought, it also brought a new freedom. Once my entire office closed I was able to work from my parents house. I could sit for hours holding my dad’s hand, beg him to stay with me, and never second guess I had anywhere else to be.
I couldn’t even begin to process the fact we would not have an opportunity to celebrate him like he deserves with the COVID threat. Loss of a family member has very few positives, but one I always looked towards during my dad’s cancer fight was the chance to honor him in words, surrounded by friends and family, at his memorial. I knew I needed the chance to hear how much he meant to others, hug his friends, and just feel connected to people connected to him. Not having that on top of my own grief felt heavier than I could process.
Instead we had a small family burial. The funeral home limited our viewing group to 10, so it was just my siblings and mom. There was hand sanitizer to ease our fear, and flowers from friends to ease our heartache. At the graveyard everyone stood six feet apart, huddled in their own family groups. My dad's pickleball partner played the bagpipes from a socially acceptable distance. The funeral director made sure we knew the handles on the casket would be sanitized for the pallbearers. He brought a mic, and we said goodbye to my brave, kind dad. The microphone was sanitized between speakers. I didn’t hug my grandma. I didn’t talk closely with my cousins. I stayed in my family unit and tried to wrap my brain around what was happening. Through it all I couldn’t stop wondering if the top of the casket was sanitized too; I just touched it and didn’t have access to a sink.
Everyone keeps reminding me we can always have a memorial service later. We are planning on holding it when it’s safe to gather again. I worry no one will come. Will people still want to celebrate my dad when this is all over? Everyone will be so excited to get back to their lives, they may not want to pause to remember a death. How can I expect people to be devastated by my dad’s death when we’re all separated from each other right now? In a lot of ways I feel shielded from my own loss because I don’t think I fully understand my dad isn’t just in quarantine like everyone else.
My life has a dad-sized hole in it. I may miss working outside the home, gathering with friends, and going to the movies, but I miss my dad more. And I know I will long after the quarantine. I wanted to tell the world my dad found common ground and connection with everyone from neighbors to strangers on ski lifts. How brave and generous he had been the past year while he fought brain cancer. How he is the most authentic person I have ever met; he was never anything but purely himself. He cried openly and told you the truth honestly. I would have told everyone at a funeral this, but I couldn't.
I’m going to miss him more than I could possibly express. He is the best dad and one of my very best friends. I never doubted he loved me or that he believed in me. He loved with every part of his heart and never held back. He would call me almost every day just to say he loved me, was proud of me, and he missed me—even if I had just seen him the day before. He always made me feel understood.
I hope I learned to have his empathy and interest in others. My dad always wanted to be good. He’s faithful, and charitable. He’s also truly funny. Even in the worst of his cancer times he was telling jokes and laughing. He’s the kind of dad who takes his 34-year-old married daughter to Disneyland because she broke her elbow and needed a pick-me-up. And the kind of dad who said he was proud that my friends think I’m spoiled, he thought it meant he was doing his job right. I am honored he will always be my dad. The kind of love my dad gave to others could have spanned any distance, let alone six feet.
Emily Hutchison King has one functioning elbow and a lot of tv opinions. Marketing manager at Chatbooks.
(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)