The Deathbed
Alone, Together: Memory and Death in a Pandemic

Alone, Together: Memory and Death in a Pandemic

Kathleen Powers Conti

“You’re lucky, then, that your mom died before all this began,” my friend said. “At least you got to be there. At least you got a funeral.” However starkly her words hung between us, I knew she was right. As shattering as it was when my mom died in Tucson four days before my sister’s birthday in December 2019, I was lucky. Am lucky.

Because my mother died shortly before COVID-19 came to the US, we benefited from all of the ancillary services of hospice and communal mourning that eased her journey and ours, but are now impossible.

She enjoyed visits from loved ones, doctors, and nurses, holding her hand and helping us decorate her room for Christmas. Therapy horses visited each patient’s window to say hello, and harpists came by the room to serenade patients. When my mom no longer recognized me, she still recognized their music. When she remained unconscious in the endless days of her slow decline, one harpist told me she continued playing to ease my mother’s journey, and to provide a soundtrack to my grief beyond the sounds of a facility dedicated to dying. These rituals around the process of dying ease the burden and improve the quality of life of patients in their remaining days, though many Americans still cannot access them due to the lack of universal healthcare, exorbitant costs, and widespread racial inequity and discrimination.

A brown and white horse stands next to a man in front of a one-story adobe hospice building
A volunteer leads a therapy horse around the hospice. (Photo by author, November 2019.)

Stage 4 pancreatic cancer made my mom’s death inevitable, but no one knew if that meant we had weeks or days or hours or minutes left with her. Thus, in the 24 hours before my mom died, I fought with American Airlines. I built a bed in my parents’ guest room. I worked on two grant applications, a consulting report, and my dissertation from the chair by her bed. I told her, as I had for so many nights watching her suffer, that it was okay for her to go. As Jesmyn Ward writes, “When my Beloved died, a doctor told me: The last sense to go is hearing. When someone is dying, they lose sight and smell and taste and touch. They even forget who they are. But in the end, they hear you.

Later that afternoon, the doctor warned us it was time. We sat, five of us, nestled around her bed like a star: the chaplain at the foot, her friend and my dad on one side, another friend and myself on the other. Afterward, the chaplain asked if my dad and I wanted to bathe her body. I knew—despite what we felt in those moments—that engaging in this ritual was both necessary and healing, though I loathed the chaplain in that instant when he asked me to choose which essential oil to put in the water. I didn’t care then, but now cherish that I had the choice.

An overhead view of a metal bowl filled with water, placed on a plain wooden chair. Two white wash cloths with orange, blue, gray, and yellow stripes are placed over the edge of the bowl.
Photograph of the bowl the chaplain prepared for us to bath the body before burial. (Photo by author, December 2019.)

Although we did not want to see her body before burial, the hospice social worker encouraged us to do so, for closure. With decades of experience, she knew how infinitely more difficult the grieving process becomes without this ritual. After watching my mom struggle to die for weeks, I was sure I did not want to see her body again. I had watched her take increasingly shallow breaths until the room became silent, until someone started keening. I desperately wanted the noise to stop, belatedly realizing it was me.

But my sister had not been there for those moments, and so she wanted to see our mom again. Despite the cliche, it was healing that the last time we saw her, she was finally not in pain.

We buried her in a private ceremony, delaying the memorial until 2020 when family members and friends could attend. At the precise minute we lowered her body into the crumbling earth, my sister-in-law gave birth to our nephew 900 miles away.

Zoom Funerals and Death During COVID

Surviving the death of a loved one is already dangerously isolating, even with in-person goodbyes, funerals, and memorials. In hopes of stemming the pandemic, many governments have banned traditional rituals of handling bodies as well as funerals. In Wuhan, the government warned people not to grieve too much or too publicly, forbidding traditional tomb-sweeping ceremonies. People are buried alone, and their families switch to memorials held over Zoom hoping to replicate closure, yet “the alternative seems to be missing one major purpose of the ritual,” Dr. Stuart Charmé says: “That’s to be literally surrounded by friends and relatives, to feel their arms holding you and supporting you as you move through the mourning process.”

How do we make tangible their deaths and our grief, when COVID has radically altered the medium? We are denied both the essential witnessing of their deaths as well as the witnessing of our grief. We struggle to comprehend the sheer scale of the dead without the visuals of the hundreds of thousands of caskets surrounded by even more mourners. The very nature of this pandemic forces muted rituals that often fail to provide survivors a path forward.

New Mourning in a Double Pandemic:

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights America’s failing health care and its entrenched and systematic racism, amplifying the effects of COVID on communities of color. As Dr. Sandra L. Shullman said, “We are living in a racism pandemic, which is taking a heavy psychological toll on our African American citizens.” People of color, especially Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, have suffered and died at far greater rates than white Americans. Police brutality continues, targeting BIPOC. After Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, Mike Griffin, a Black community organizer in Minneapolis, said, “I’m just as likely to die from a cop as I am from COVID.”

The absence of national mourning despite the ever-growing COVID death count remains telling. We need to acknowledge that these deaths were and continue to be preventable. There is no reconciliation without truth.

This pandemic, like the ones that have come before, will require us to grieve together, in person. Even at an individual’s memorial, we will mourn beyond this one life lost and our lives that existed with them in it. We will need a national mourning for all those who needlessly died during this multifaceted pandemic, of those who died from COVID, from lack of health care, from racism, from poverty, and from police brutality. We will need to name all of those lost to us, as the New York Times attempted to do in May, and Adrianne Benzion and Jessica McEwan adapted for “Black Deaths by Police Exceeds 7,000, An Incalculable Loss.”

In hospice, staff discuss three phases of recovery from a traumatic event or loss, based on the work of psychiatrist Judith Herman: safety and stabilization, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection and integration. People grieve, find closure, and heal in a multitude of ways, but these threads are typically present. My family and I, for a brief time, could do the first two parts together only due to the timing of my mother’s death.

Like so many others, we struggle to feel safe, stable or connected during COVID. We cannot follow the guidance of the hospice workers who had urged us to deliberately forge ahead with resuming our lives that had become so stagnant within those hospice walls. We cannot return to work in person or watch our nephew take his first steps. We cannot see our friends, loved ones, and each other, especially as my sister, dad, and I are each in three of the states hardest hit by COVID. The pandemic is magnifying our grief and the sense of isolation that comes after a death, preventing us from closure.

A few months after my mom’s funeral, I began sewing masks. When dropping some masks off at his house, one friend told me about his first virtual funeral after his grandmother unexpectedly passed. City laws dictated that only ten people could attend, but the priest eventually decided to ignore the laws put in place to protect the living. Instead, he opened the funeral up to over thirty people, believing that to deny them this moment of communal grief and healing was riskier than COVID. Unsupported and physically distant grief is also a risk.

Photo taken from sitting in a wooden pew in an adobe church. The backs of other mourners’ heads are visible, and volunteers stand at the front of the room surrounded by hundreds of candles.
After placing the candles at the front of the room, volunteers read the names of all those who died at the hospice in the previous 3 months. (Courtesy of the author, January 2020.)

Yet, I am lucky. My mom’s death occurred when it was both safe and legal for us to be there when she died. She did not die alone. For the first few months, I did not grieve alone.

Every three months, my mother’s hospice holds a collective, nondenominational ceremony for the hundreds who died under their care. The staff incorporates different rituals from around the world in an attempt to create a healing experience for the living to remember, mourn, and celebrate the lives of those no longer living. The one we attended was held in the morning before my mother’s memorial in January.

Some parts of the communal ritual keep replaying in my mind, perhaps as one blueprint for how we might come together to mourn those lost in this double pandemic.

Each person received a candle that we lit together and held in our hands as we slowly wove through the adobe building and placed them together on a table before returning to our seats. Afterward, volunteers read the names of the dead, a process that took nearly an hour. Finally, they asked the audience to join in and to speak aloud the names of anyone else who had died, whether it was yesterday or sixty years before. The adobe walls sang with the hundreds of names being whispered and chanted and cried out as collectively we mourned together.

Featured image caption: Since the pandemic began, I’ve made countless masks, in part as an effort to stay busy after my mom’s death. (Photo by author, April 2020.)

As a public historian and preservation professional, Kathleen Powers Conti consults on projects across the US and is an experienced educator. Proficient in Russian and Kazakh, her research spans across the Americas and the former Soviet Union, focusing on how to preserve and interpret places of “difficult heritage”—sites of trauma, contested history, or atrocities. She is currently writing her dissertation "'Tell It Like It Was’: Race, Memory, and Historic Preservation in the American South” at the University of Texas at Austin.