It is never easy to lose a loved one. Losing someone in the middle of a global pandemic, though, has been one of the most sobering experiences of my life.
Last week, I lost my grandma, a feisty 88-year-old who loved being from Queens. She adored Entenmann's cakes, Law and Order: SVU marathons and, of course, her very large family.
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Over the last several months, her health had been failing. She was in and out of the hospital, so while it wasn't so much of a surprise, it still feels like it happened so fast. She went to the ER early Sunday morning with breathing issues unrelated to the coronavirus, and by Tuesday night, she had passed.
Any time she was in the hospital, someone from our family was there. Occasionally, there was even a line in the lobby to get to her room because of the limited number of visitors the hospital allowed at once. But this last time, she was alone. Luckily, one of my aunts worked in the hospital where she was admitted and was able to be with her for some of her final moments. Other than that, no visitors were allowed. No final bedside handhold, no watching one last episode of Jeopardy together, just a very quick FaceTime phone call to squeeze in the last "I love you." (Times 19! One for each of us.) A few hours later, she was gone.
I couldn't go home to comfort my mom with a hug. I couldn't go through old photo albums with my sister. We have all been social distancing for weeks, so once again, all we had were phone calls. My cousins and I hosted Zoom grief conferences - not an ideal way to mourn.
We knew there would be limitations on what services we could have, but we didn't realize just how stringent it would be. The day after my grandmother died, my mom and aunts went to finalize some of the arrangements and were told only immediate family for a viewing - no proper wake with our extended family and friends, no funeral mass and no burial.
My grandma grew up on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City. She, as well as most of her children and grandchildren, had every sacrament since birth at St. Mary's Church and wanted to return there for her funeral mass. Because of the coronavirus, churches are closed. She is being buried alongside my grandfather in a war veterans cemetery on Long Island. That, too, is now closed to the public because of the virus.
Not being able to give my grandmother the services she deserves and a proper goodbye has been very hard for us all. At her wake, our entire immediate family wasn't there, because they couldn't be. Those of us who were stood six feet apart, with masks and gloves on. It was difficult to fight the urge to hug each other, but the fear of someone else getting sick loomed over the service. It was strange and uncomfortable.
Just like the rest of the city, it feels like my family has had to put a pause button on everything, including the grieving process. The pain of loss is still there, but without running through the motions of what would normally happen, it feels like we are frozen in time.
The hardest part for us is that she was buried alone. In a family as large as ours, there are not many things you can do alone whether you like it or not. She was surrounded by family for both the milestones and the mundane (birthdays, holidays, Tuesdays...). At this final moment, when family should have been by her side, we could not be, and it's heartbreaking.
When this is all over, which I hope is sooner rather than later, my family and friends will gather for a proper memorial service. We will go back to our old neighborhood. We'll stand in the church across the street from the building she lived in for most of her life. Friends and neighbors will join us to share their memories of a proud Long Island City native. Most importantly, we will all be together. This time, it will be to say goodbye to the woman who made sure we always were.