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With the coronavirus we die alone. Is the sacrifice too much for our humanity to bear?

Uncertainty is terrifying. Loneliness is unbearable. Death is painful. Born from the onslaught of Covid19, the three have joined forces to hit us where it hurts the most. With the exception of key workers who are required to work, most of us abide by the necessary isolation restrictions, some with family and some alone, and we listen to the news with hopes of seeing light at the end of the tunnel. We try to stay as busy as possible, but there is a lingering fear of this unknown virus and the path of destruction it has created in our lives. We listen to the fluctuation of death toll figures, hear various numbers being tossed about daily and watch as big names discuss percentages of death and survival, but we forget that those numbers are, of course, people. It’s only when the virus makes an unwelcome visit to your circle of family and friends that your rude awakening ensues, and the offense that Covid19 is committing against humanity, with unrelenting salt for the wounds it has inflicted, is understood.

We have been ruthlessly reminded that we are mortals, but not only are we mortals – we are humans that can feel on an emotional level. This means we are vulnerable to emotional torture, and that has proven to be a consequence of the virus. The unfortunate reality is that our loved ones can be taken suddenly from us. Whether it’s family members that we must avoid for their own protection or for our protection, it is still a separation that is difficult to accept. The fear of losing someone has kept us away from each other, but it sadly hasn’t worked for everyone.

Only recently, a man we know was being kept home to be cared for by two family members. He was elderly with underlying conditions, and because of this, his family sought to keep him under their watch and took every precaution to make sure he was strictly isolated. Gloves, masks, restricted visitors, separation from family members – all of these careful steps we take to protect those we love. But with one necessary trip to the hospital for reasons unrelated to Covid19, the man was exposed to the virus, and it found him. Suddenly his family that undertook all those tedious steps to ensure that he wouldn’t contract the virus, were denied access to him. They rang him to bring him comfort, but while he could hear them, he was unable to catch his breath enough to speak. Tragically, he died without his family around him. The family held a funeral that was limited in numbers with individuals spaced apart. There was no handshaking or hugs. Grandchildren were not permitted to attend their own grandfather’s funeral. Even the grief of losing a loved one must be endured alone. The man’s daughter expressed how she hadn’t even wrapped her head around the fact that he had died because he was there and then he was gone. At times, she forgets he has died.

There is a haunting feeling of knowing that someone so precious to you is suffering and terrified in the hospital and you can’t bring them comfort. You’re helpless. There is no final goodbye, no time to adjust to the irreplaceable loss in your life and no relief from the torture of knowing the loved one has to suffer death alone and afraid. It’s heartbreaking, to say the least. Patients suffer. Families suffer. Medical staff suffer. The elderly who have taken care of us, raised us, given so much to their families and communities and who mean so much to us are locked behind hospital doors and out of reach, and it all happens so fast that there isn’t time to fully process it. Grandparents, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters are people that have a weighted significance to us that was built up over our lifetimes as families. Our friends are people who we’ve invited into our lives and can even fit into the family. Their pain and fear is felt deeply by us. Their death, alone and frightened, is almost too much to bear.

It’s not just the victims and their families who are trying to find solace during these times of uncertainty, but also the medical workers who are fighting to keep the victims alive. One nurse that took to social media videoed herself after losing a patient. She wept as she spoke about the patients calling out for their families in panic and terror. Many times throughout the video she had to pause in order to gather herself before continuing to tell how her patients had to face their final hour alone. As she struggled to get the words out about attempting to be strong for her patients and taking on the impossible task of filling the shoes of the loved ones who couldn’t be there, she emphasised on the ugliness of the virus and the harrowing pain it causes the patients and their families.

As the saying goes: desperate times call for desperate measures, but what do you do when the desperate measures, as necessary as they are, take from you the most meaningful things in life? What do you do when your personal desperation feels larger than the desperate times? How does one cope with knowing that someone you love is going to die alone and afraid? How does one accept that you were desperately wanted for the sake of comfort but unable to give it? Desperate  measures may be needed, but as humans, we can only sacrifice so much.



Mikal O’Boyle lives and writes from Mayo

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