Losing mom: How COVID-19 is changing the way we grieve

·4 min read

Donna Lavell lost her mother to COVID-19 in December. The retired nurse from Ancaster was the only one who could be with her mother in her final days.

After her mother’s death, Donna had to grieve alone. Her family gathered for the funeral while she spent two weeks isolating.

“It’s life altering,” Donna says of the experience. “It was something I never want people to go through.”

Donna is one of many family members who have lost someone to COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care. Final words are exchanged remotely, families grieve apart, and caregivers can be left with guilt and little closure after loved ones pass.

Audrey Lavell tested positive for COVID-19 in the outbreak at Shalom Village in Westdale. After a speedy decline, she died on Dec. 21.

On Dec. 8, Donna received a call from Shalom Village about a COVID-19 case in the facility. The staff member said other residents were showing symptoms.

An outbreak was declared the next day. Donna was told her 91-year-old mother had a fever and diarrhea. She’d had a COVID-19 test, but the results were pending.

A couple days later, the result was in. Audrey had COVID-19.

“At that point, you’re very concerned and you can see the writing on the wall,” Donna said.

Unable to visit during the outbreak, Lavell continued to ask for updates on her mother. By Dec. 15, Audrey’s appetite was decreasing.

On a call three days later, Audrey’s speech was no longer coherent.

“She appeared to be crying,” Donna said. “I had to hang up on her, which killed me.”

Donna reached out to staff to ask if she could visit. “My one wish was always that she not be alone, and that she be surrounded by family,” she says.

Only palliative visits were allowed, but so many of the home’s staff were off isolating that no one could tell Donna if her mother’s condition was bad enough to allow for a visit.

After expressing concern, Donna received a call from a doctor to confirm her mother’s condition had worsened and she could visit.

That evening, Donna came to Shalom Village and stayed with her mom for the last of her days. Audrey died three days later.

Donna was the only one of her five siblings to be with her mom at the end of her life. The others had to say their goodbyes over the phone.

“That they weren’t able to be a part of all this loss is very hard for them,” Donna says. “You don’t think ... that that’s the way you’re going to say bye to your mom.”

Ameil Joseph, an associate professor in the school of social work at McMaster University, has looked at grief and loss during the pandemic.

“The concepts of grief have shifted,” he says. “The way we understand isolation and loneliness, the way people are processing grief and loss has changed.”

Joseph is working on a project with McMaster and the Canadian Mental Health Association to research and create a platform to help people grieve during the pandemic.

The website, called “A Way Through,” is intended to help guide users through resources, like a map with different “entry points” for those who need help or want to support others. It will also be a platform for people to share their own stories, he adds. He expects a draft of the website to be out for review in the next couple of months.

Joseph says the ability to respond to grief in “meaningful ways,” such as through funerals or other traditions, “is an effective way of dealing with it.” But in the pandemic, “the how can be flexible.”

He points to online resources that allow people to feel less alone. In Donna’s case, her family grieved together over Zoom.

At the same time, there are challenges that can’t always be overcome, Joseph says. For example, Donna’s siblings couldn’t be present for their mother’s death. And then Donna missed her mother’s funeral because she was isolating.

“People often feel an exacerbated sense of loss and disempowerment when grief can’t be openly acknowledged and socially supported and publicly mourned,” Joseph says. But he says sharing those stories, including through his platform, will help create a “common experience” of loss which could help show people they’re not alone.

He says an essential aspect of coping with grief is to decide which memories are meaningful, and crucially, how to move forward. That can mean having conversations with loved ones ahead of time about their wishes keeping in mind COVID-19 restrictions.

Before Shalom’s outbreak, Donna knew she would be the only one to visit her mom because COVID-19 restrictions only allowed one caregiver. So, she suggested her family create videos for Audrey to share holiday wishes. Donna played the videos for Audrey before her death.

“She mumbled at the end, ‘My family did it,’” Donna says. “It was like a gift.”

Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator