It is ironic that it took a global pandemic caused by a miniscule virus to show how fragile our world really is, and how interdependent we are.
Yet another irony is that, during the pandemic of Covid-19, we have never felt so alone and out of control. Normally, with good planning, hard-earned resources, a bit of luck and the practical or emotional help of family and friends, most of us can cope with any emergency or unexpected event. But, with this pandemic none of our personal skills, contacts or experience have been of much help at all. Many of us have faced situations which we simply could not avoid or cope with.
For myself it all began on Tuesday 24rd March 2020 after the UK government brought in special rules to “Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS”. Listening to the horrific news reports on TV about how the virus was killing, not hundreds but thousands, of people in China and Italy, the people of the UK were shocked and frightened enough to comply ~ well except for Dominic Cummings! However, there were many people who could not stay at home. There were essential workers who had to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and carry on with their jobs. Then there were frail people like my husband who had to attend hospital regularly for treatment – in his case, dialysis. Usually he was picked up by hospital transport at midday and returned home around 7pm every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. But, in order to avoid his being in transport with other people, I was asked to bring him in and pick him up myself. This I was more than happy to do.
However, once I got to the dialysis unit it was obvious that the situation was far from safe or controlled. All of the patients, as well as transport drivers and nurses, were packed into one small waiting area with no PPE at all and no possibility of social distancing! I was so worried that when I got home, I rang the hospital to complain that they were not observing the safety rules set out by the government.
Needless to say, within a week we were both feeling unwell. On Tuesday 31st March my husband was getting confused and didn’t want to eat anything. On Wednesday 1st April he stayed in bed all day and again didn’t eat. On Thursday 2nd April the nurses phoned me from dialysis to say that my husband was really unwell. I drove straight there to find him barely conscious and being dreadfully sick. He couldn’t recognise me and was obviously very ill. We decided that he needed to go to the Emergency department at the other end of the hospital. However, the Covid-19 rules meant anyone suspected of having the virus was not allowed into the main hospital. So, to avoid a very long walk around the outside of the hospital, his lovely named nurse rang for an ambulance. This took what felt like an eternity to arrive and the paramedics, seemingly unaware of the rules, were extremely cross that I hadn’t just wheeled him through the hospital in a wheelchair. Eventually they agreed to bring a trolley in and they got him onto the ambulance. I was about to climb in after him when they said I wasn’t allowed to go with him and I wouldn’t be allowed to visit him. At that point I felt sick with fear.
After testing it was found that he did indeed have Covid-19 so he was sent to a special ward. There followed days of confusion. I sent in his essentials; pyjamas, phone, drinks, sweets etc., none of which he was well enough to receive or use. The hospital was becoming overwhelmed with cases of the virus and the staff seemed to be in chaos. I phoned daily and got very different reports on his condition but never got to talk to my husband himself. 3 times I was told by one doctor that he could go home, only to be told later by a different doctor that he was too ill to go home.
So, when on Thursday 9th April, a senior doctor phoned me I was delighted to hear that my husband was ‘doing well’. However, I had misheard and what the doctor actually said was that my husband ‘was not doing well’. In fact, he was so unwell that this consultant was going to break all the rules and allow me to come into the hospital and sit with him. For this I will be eternally grateful.
When I got to the hospital staff were very unwilling to let me in but eventually, they were overruled. From the minute I got in the nurses were wonderful. They gave me full PPE and moved my husband’s bed to a private en-suite room on the 9th floor with a wonderful view of the city skyline as the sun set. I suppose this should have rung alarm bells for me, but it didn’t. My husband looked so peaceful, sleeping. I thought if I just kept talking, he would eventually wake up. I chattered on for 7 hours about all the things he loved; family, fishing, caravanning, holidays and home. But he never did wake up. His breathing, which had been loud, got quieter and slower, and eventually at 1.20am on Good Friday 10th April, it just stopped. There was no drama, he just slipped away quietly and with no fuss.
When I summoned the nurse to tell her, she was exhausted and despondent. She had seen so many people die of this virus; 5 in the last 24 hours, which was more death than she had ever experienced before. I felt so sorry for her. She then carefully put most of my husband’s belongings in special bags as ‘contaminated’ to be safely disposed of. It was then I realised that we really were in a ‘plague’ situation.
The PPE combined with my own developing Coronavirus had me dripping in sweat, but with the help of a socially distanced porter, I managed to find my way out to the carpark. There I sat, alone, in the middle of the night for such a long time, in a state of shock and feeling numb. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do next. And, I realised now that I didn’t feel well at all. The thing about being a carer is that you are so focussed on the person you care for that you tend to be unaware of how you are yourself. But I managed to drive home and didn’t see another car on the bypass. This just added to the strangeness of the situation.
The days that followed my husband’s death were unbelievably awful. Nothing was normal as no one was working properly due to the government pandemic rules; not the registrar, the funeral directors, the bereavement office or anyone. Everything was such a struggle, which just compounded my grief. Then I became seriously ill. My daughter was checking on me daily from outside my window and she had been concerned that I was suffering from the virus. On the Sunday evening when she came round, I was in a state of collapse, confused, with a raging temperature and unable to stand. She called an ambulance and I was taken straight into hospital. My Coronavirus test was positive so I was transferred to an isolation room on a Covid ward. Anyone who says Covid is just like flu, or not even as bad as flu as Mr Trump said recently, has not experienced the full horror of the virus. The coughing is relentless and breathing so difficult. But for me the worst thing was the soaring temperature and unbelievable sweating which soaked through clothes and bedding as fast as they could be changed. Also, my kidneys were being attacked which has damaged them possibly permanently. I did often feel like giving up, and some days death would have been welcome. But, thanks to wonderful doctors, a superb local hospital and the encouragement and prayers of my wonderful family and friends, I recovered. My lungs don’t appear to be permanently damaged, but I get breathless now just taking the dog for her walk and my arthritis is much more painful. I’ve actually bought a walking stick and a seat-stick because I feel so weak and tired some days. But I know how lucky I am to have survived and I am grateful.
There was a long delay in having my husband’s body collected from the hospital by the funeral directors and I was not allowed to visit or see his body there. Funerals were on hold so a whole month passed before he could even be cremated. And the organisation of the funeral was out of my hands due to Covid-19 restrictions. Rules stated that only 5 people were allowed to attend his funeral and it had to be held outside the crematorium. We couldn’t have music or video or live streaming or any means of sharing the funeral with his loving family. It is unimaginably hard to have to tell sisters, grandchildren and his many good friends, that they could not attend his funeral. I find it hard even now to express how devastating the ‘funeral’ was.
Five of us walked behind the hearse towards the crematorium building. The funeral directors lifted up the rear door of the hearse and they slid the coffin onto a trolley. No-one was allowed to touch the coffin. We gathered round for a reading and prayers in the ten-minute service, which was all we were allowed.
The weather was atrocious with howling wind being funnelled through the car park. I comfort myself by believing it was the Holy Spirit blowing through.
Suddenly there came from Heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting…And they were filled with the Holy SpiritActs2:2-4
The minister, Seb Cummings from Mariners’ church in Gloucester, was so compassionate but sadly we couldn’t hear the readings we had chosen so carefully because of the wind. Then the funeral directors wheeled the trolley inside and he was gone. It just didn’t seem real to me, but the oddness and sadness of it will stay with me forever. Now all I have are my memories and my photographs.
On the death of the beloved
Though we need to weep your loss,by John O’Donohue
You dwell in that safe place in our hearts,
Where no storm or night or pain can reach you.
Your love was like the dawn
Brightening over our lives
Awakening beneath the dark
A further adventure of colour.
The sound of your voice
Found for us
A new music
That brightened everything.
Whatever you enfolded in your gaze
Quickened in the joy of its being;
You placed smiles like flowers
On the altar of the heart.
Your mind always sparkled
With wonder at things.
Though your days here were brief,
Your spirit was live, awake, complete.
We look towards each other no longer
From the old distance of our names;
Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath,
As close to us as we are to ourselves.
Though we cannot see you with outward eyes,
We know our soul’s gaze is upon your face,
Smiling back at us from within everything
To which we bring our best refinement.
Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.
When orchids brighten the earth,
Darkest winter has turned to spring;
May this dark grief flower with hope
In every heart that loves you.
May you continue to inspire us:
To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
And where we will never lose you again.
Since all this happened, as restrictions eased a bit, I have been able to lay Gerry to rest with the dignity of his family around him. Our wonderful priest Fr Alan Finley conducted a beautiful short service with prayers and readings that gave the ceremony meaning, and me a great deal of comfort.
I now have a place I can visit which is peaceful and beautiful and a fitting tribute to his life. I grieve every day and every night.