Ordinary Death in a Pandemic

On Tuesday, March 17, 2020, shortly after noon, my mother, Carol Lenoir Price Swedberg, died in home hospice at the age of 90. I had arrived to be by her side three days earlier despite the fact that COVID-19 had already started to disrupt travel and other aspects of our daily lives.

Mom died an ordinary death in a very extraordinary time. She died in the house she had loved since 1941, and she died surrounded by multiple generations of family.

I didn’t tell all the people I love right away. I called my wife, of course. But I put off telling others. I sent an email to my best friend from high school and to a couple of others in my hometown who knew I was home and why.

And then I slowly told others with some variation of this message: “I can’t bring myself to make a public announcement yet. It’s not that telling people will make it real. It’s very real. I was there at the end. It’s that I can’t stand to see the announcement met with ‘I’m sorries’ to then be immediately replaced with the next shared news story or the next rant against the president.” Although it felt selfish, I couldn’t stand the thought of my grief being lost in the midst of news of the spreading pandemic and the Trump administration’s bungled response. But with encouragement from friends, I began sharing stories and pictures on social media and was touched by the loving and compassionate responses. I have been moved, too, by the box of homemade pastries and card from a friend and colleague, the beautiful card sent in the mail from a friend who is always there for me, and from the emails and private messages from those who have checked in on me from their various places of social and physical isolation.

Through all of this, I have thought a lot about experiencing an ordinary life event in a time of pandemic. In better times, the people who love me might have joined me at a restaurant where I could tell stories and we could drink bourbon and ginger ale, my mother’s favorite cocktail. Instead, my friends must focus on staying safe and healthy in a very unsafe and unhealthy world. The pandemic has triggered depression and trauma for many of the people I know. I push aside my grief so that I can send love, compassion, and support to those most in need.

As a historian, I also seek solace from my knowledge and understanding of death and dying in Protestant North America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. That might seem a strange thing to nonhistorians, but I thought a lot about the letters and diaries I have read from this earlier time as I sat by Mom’s side, held her hand, fed her sections of clementines, and listened to the words she spoke in her final days. I have kept thinking about those letters and diaries in the days and weeks that have followed.

In my 1999 dissertation about the Cranch family in the era of the American Revolution, my focus was on ordinary life events in an extraordinary time. In my first chapter I wrote that the family lived in a rapidly changing world but that “They also experienced other seemingly more mundane changes that marked their lives, often in more profound ways than the larger-scale upheavals.” I wrote, too, that “Marriage, illness, death, and birth – all of these and more were the day-to-day changes that helped to shape their lives.”

What I wrote so long ago about people in the past also holds true for me in the 21st century. The large-scale upheavals have changed how I live, work, and interact with others, but those few days earlier this year as I arrived in Moultonborough, New Hampshire and sat by my mother’s side have marked my life even more profoundly. I am altered in ways I am only starting to understand.

Because Mom died at home, I think, too, about the ways that dying at home was part and parcel of life in the earlier Protestant societies I study. They didn’t have the fancy mechanical reclining chair where Mom spent her final days. They didn’t have an oxygen tank or plastic syringes to fill with morphine, but they did have opiates and they often did have the equivalent of the visiting nurse. If the people I study died as they wished, they died as my mother did, surrounded by multiple generations of loving family members who kept watch all hours of the day and night. The people I study would have been absent the sound of the TV and the motor on the oxygen tank, but as we did, they would have sat on wooden chairs or benches, or on the floor, telling stories and finding some solace in proximity.

While there are historical continuities, there are also historical differences. What I have found to be the biggest difference was the absence of religious language or practice in my mother’s death. Although culturally Protestant, I grew up in a nonreligious household. The only time I was in a church with my family was for a cousin’s wedding some time in the 1970s. When he was alive, Dad went to the Methodist church in town because he loved to sing, but when the minister asked if he would join the church, Dad reportedly said, “I’m just here to sing, not to pray.” In my junior high years, worried about my lack of friends, Mom asked if I wanted to attend church in order to develop friendships. “I’ll drop you off,” she said, making it clear that she would not attend herself. I had no household religious instruction and only a vague notion about the Christian roots of the holidays we celebrated.

In contrast, the everyday lives of the people I study were woven through with religious belief and practice. They wrote about their faith and attended Sunday meeting. They believed that earthly attachments should not be as strong as their attachment to God. In death, by the early 19th century, it had become standard for those keeping watch to ask if the dying man or woman felt assured of their salvation.

I don’t know the religious beliefs of all my family members who surrounded Mom that day, other than that they range from atheistic to non-churchgoing religious or spiritual. As a nonreligious person, Mom never talked to me about life after death or meeting friends or family members in the afterlife. Her children and grandchildren did not ask if she wished, or felt she was destined, for some form of heaven.

In the end, however, death is the end we all must face. This unassailable fact also tied the past and the present together for me. The historical world I occupy is filled with those long dead. In the more present world, I have known for a long time that I was likely to outlive my mother and had made peace with the fact that every time I saw her might be the last time. This brought to mind the lessons the Protestant New Englanders I study taught their children. For instance, in 1775, Mary Cranch wrote a letter to her 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth, “remember this my Dear now you are young – you know you must die & you know not how soon.”1 Although my own parents did not emphasize this in their letters to me, it is a lesson that I nonetheless have absorbed in my half century of living and my decades of studying history.

Unlike those dying of COVID-19 in the hospitals, my mother did not have to die alone. Like the members of the Cranch family and others in the past with whom I am familiar, her death was difficult but ordinary. This provides a measure of comfort in a very uncomfortable world.

Notes

  1. Mary Cranch to Elizabeth Cranch, 6 January 1775, Jacob Norton Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Return to text.

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