I know to stay 6 feet away from others, to leave my shoes at the door, to tip like a Rockefeller on deliveries, and that I can take my temperature with a meat thermometer. I’d been briefed on preventative measures for the coronavirus, but I knew nothing about emotionally preparing to grieve.
My grandfather died on April 6, 2020, from Covid-19 complications. We knew his nursing home, one of the best in Connecticut, was in lockdown. We knew he had a fever and was sleeping all the time. He wasn’t swallowing anymore, his chest rising and falling rapidly. The average respiratory rate is 12-20 breaths per minute; my grandfather was taking 50. We knew his mouth was cracked, that his skin was irregularly colored, and he was letting go. My mother considered taking her car there and just sitting in the parking lot to feel close to him. Mercifully, the final stages happened fast.
There are thousands of Americans dying from Covid-19 every day. Most of them are elderly and immunocompromised, but you almost wouldn’t know it from the headlines. A young, healthy person dies and it’s an injustice, a scare tactic that gets shared on social media with a reminder to stay home. But when it’s a frail senior, well, their time was up. My grandfather gets to be a glossed-over statistic, a data point.
My grandfather, Werner Joseph Meyer (originally “Meier,” but he changed it to seem more American), was born on a dairy farm in Buchs, Switzerland. He had nine brothers and sisters and a 6th-grade education. He served in WWII. He tended bar and sold Electrolux vacuum cleaners door-to-door. After emigrating to America, he opened a restaurant, The Village Bistro in Fleetwood, New York. My grandfather loved classical music, Clams Casino, and gardening. He was legendary for having the nicest cameras but taking the worst pictures. He obsessed over making lump-free mashed potatoes and finding the perfectly shaped Christmas tree.
The news was delivered to me over FaceTime. I was alone in my living room in New York City, the epicenter of the virus, sheltered in place, my sobbing reflection staring back at me while I held my phone up. Grieving in self-isolation is one of the most unnatural things I’ve ever experienced. My grandfather had no funeral, no eulogy, no closure. He was a man of faith, but there was no priest at his bedside to administer last rites, no full-color double-sided prayer cards. He was cremated because the morgues were at capacity, and as it was, the body was likely too contagious to embalm. There wasn’t enough notice to purchase an urn, and the crematorium was sold out. My mother went to pick up my grandfather’s remains and received an 8x10 box in a reusable tote bag.
Working through grief is an isolating process, but it’s somehow even lonelier with my world shrunk to a 500-square-foot apartment. It’s in my nature to ask for some space, but now all I have is space. There were traditional observances we missed out on, but I was robbed of the comforting rituals, too: going through boxes of my grandfather’s old photos, yelling to my sisters in the other room for waterproof mascara, having a “take your mind off it” dinner with friends where everything felt normal again for one night. Instead of finding solace through support and human connection, I “went” back to work the next day and tried to live with the loss. I got burned out from answering sympathetic text messages. I took a government-approved solitary walk and cried openly on the sidewalk, my face mask drawing a curtain around me. It was all so anticlimactic that some days I forget he’s even gone.
This aggressive virus is making us confront the reality of death every day, but our culture doesn’t sensationalize the elderly and immunocompromised fatalities like the younger ones. The bias is pervasive and insidious, their lives seen as expendable. It’s this idea that underscores the push some politicians are making to reopen the economy sooner than most public health experts are recommending — that the economic costs are not worth the deaths of some elderly people.
With my grandfather, Alzheimer’s had started to show itself years ago and we accepted he was nearing the end of his life. That doesn’t make his passing any less of a tragedy. He wasn’t sick, and he wasn’t ready to die. There were 11 other fatalities at his nursing home, alongside countless stories and tens of thousands of families like mine who were bracing for the worst and had their lives upended. These are real people. They deserve that recognition, too.
May my grandfather experience a shred of dignity in his remembrance that he was not afforded in death. Later this year, my family and I will have a “celebration of life” to honor his 90th birthday. Those who are gone live on in our actions and emulations, so we’ll serve the silkiest mashed potatoes and somehow manage to not get a good photo of anyone. Finally free to gather in the physical world again, we’ll get the chance to say goodbye.
Maryellen Stewart lives in Brooklyn, New York.