As we are enduring this COVID-19 pandemic, a memory from my youth appeared in my mind a few days ago. In 1964, I got my first real job- one that I actually got a paycheck for. I was a sophomore in high school. Minimum wage was $1.00 an hour at that time! I was hired as the “library page” for our village library. Every weekday, after school, I worked for an hour, putting the returned books back on the shelves and relocating the ones that browsers (not yet a computer term) had misplaced. One of the titles that piqued my interest was RATS, LICE AND HISTORY: A Chronicle of Disease, Plagues and Pestilence by Hans Zinsser. It was first published in 1935, so it was probably already thought of as “an old title” by 1964. It was written intelligently and with scientific detail, but its author purposely wrote in a style that could easily be understood by the general public. The book was the eighth best-selling title in non-fiction noted by THE NEW YORK TIMES for 1935. A Wikipedia search will also inform you that several medical professionals credited the work to inspiring them to enter upon their chosen profession. The book focuses on the history of the disease of typhus and its deadly effects. It has been regarded as a biography of an illness. Besides Dr. Zinsser’s work, I was also reminded on Edgar Allen Poe’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and Thomas Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE, fictional works that deal with similar phenomena.
We are already feeling the loss our normal routine and activity due to the precautions necessitated by the appearance of this virus. Staying at home is quite the discipline. In my current profession as Hospice Chaplain and Bereavement Counselor, I cannot help but be moved deeply, even to the point of tears, as I watch the nightly news. A nurse in an urban hospital companions a man who is dying and becomes the messenger to his family, assuring them that he died peacefully. They were unable to be with him because of preventative precautions. A prohibition on closeness when closeness is most needed. Bodies are transferred to refrigerated trucks, and I wonder how long it will be before their families can claim them- if that is even a possibility.
Other persons continue to die of other things in this time, but this virus impacts on everyone. Two Sundays ago, the forty-nine year-old middle son of acquaintances of mine died of a cardiac aneurysm. Speaking with his mother, I learned they were permitted only a brief prayer service at an outside shrine on the grounds of their church. Only his parents, his spouse and children, and his two siblings with their spouses and children were present. This very popular, well-loved, and gregarious family are bereft of the very social supports that could help to assuage their sudden and shocking loss. We are all touched by this experience and may very well carry the heaviness of it within ourselves for a long while.
In times when we are deprived of the comfort of social interaction in the face of loss and grief, small things become important. If you have lost someone during this time (whether or not from COVID-19), perhaps these suggestions might help. Create a small sacred space in your home to honor your loved one. If it helps to place a photo of your loved one there, do that. If there are other mementos, use those as well. Use candles safely. Hannaford is still selling flowers- and we can still access food markets. If you have a spiritual practice or a religious tradition, make use of its words and rituals. If your loved one enjoyed music, listen to it. If they delighted in favorite foods, cook a meal to honor their memory. See if you can stream a movie they enjoyed.
If you are staying at home with family members, cherish the intimacy this time can offer you. Reach out to others who knew your loved one- email, texting, phone calls, or FaceTime. If you need comfort and help, ask for it. Make use of what can be available to you now, even in these extraordinary circumstances. Above all, allow yourself your feelings and your expression of them. Tears and groans are perfectly acceptable. I highly recommend (what I call) “therapeutic screams”- inside the car is the best place. Hopefully, we will find a time in our future when what we have not been able to do now will be able to be done later. So many people are assuring us that we will come through this- and we will! By the way, Dr. Zinsser’s book is still available!
~By Guy Tillson, MDiv, MA-Pemi-Baker Community Health Hospice Chaplain & Bereavement Counselor