My sister died without warning a few weeks into the pandemic. Possibly due to the high volumes of deaths experienced and anticipated, the medical examiner did not do an autopsy to determine cause of death. She officially died of “natural causes” though your guess is as good as mine as to what actually happened. Days earlier she mentioned via an online conversation with a relative that she was spending time to focus on her health. Did that mean that she was fighting illness or that she was trying to stop smoking and eat better? We will never know. She was 52. My other sister died when she was 35. She died of complications related to many serious health issues that she had been fighting. Finally her heart could no longer handle the impacts of all the sickness and she collapsed.
As a mental health professional I am used to being the one helping others. It’s what I trained for and what I enjoy. I am not always successful of course, but I do what I can. Sadly, during this pandemic I have found myself feeling powerless in so many ways. I could not hold my loved ones as we grieved. I could not visit them nor be visited. There was no wake, no burial, and no services of any kind. My nephew was given the urn that held her ashes. She now resides on a bookshelf. I have not seen it…
Weeks before a dear friend of mine, so close we consider her kin, found out that her cancer had returned just months after having major surgery aimed at removing it. She was told that she was terminally ill, that they could offer vigorous treatment that may give her a matter of weeks, possibly a few months more but there was nothing that could prevent her from dying. She was advised that she would not live to see the seasons change through another cycle. She was just starting to enjoy semi-retirement after decades of serving others.
I wanted so badly to drive to her but with the pandemic and her already fragile immune system, driving to another state was something that could not be allowed. Instead we spoke briefly online. Tears streaking our faces and hearts broken, knowing that our last visit would likely be the last visit ever.
Another piece of my heart died with those events. After receiving the news from my friend, I went into my next telehealth session stunned but needed. I don’t know if my clients noticed anything as I did my best to be there for them.
My sister died on Easter. For the rest of my life that holiday will serve as a reminder that she is gone. She joined my father and other sister. Somewhere in heaven Junior, Wendy and Amy sit waiting for mum and me to join them. I hope they are waiting decades for us, though we both have had many close calls of our own.
The day after Amy died I went to work on the farm but did not do any sessions. I walked around in a fog, everything seemed surreal, like I was watching it on a tv screen yet I could feel it. We had a weather advisory that day. Great winds and heavy rains came down. At times it felt like the large building I was in was moving with the heaviest gusts. I found myself looking out of the windows, the trees blowing in so many directions. A beautiful white birch tree that tilted over the pond was caught in a gust and suddenly hung over the second meadow loop. It would die at that moment but the fibers did not yet know.
I hurt, I was numb, and I was filled with pain yet could not feel. So many emotions stirred yet I also felt nothing. It is so hard to explain. As the day wore on I needed to feel something. I needed to get out of the building. I donned my Wellingtons (muck boots), an army surplus poncho and my leather cowboy hat and set out into the storm alone. The wind was blowing, at times it felt like this large body of mine may blow away. The rain at times felt like it may wash away the world. I walked through the car park and down the dirt road taking the right fork in the road, walking to the west and northwest fields. The sky was so angry, the wind was gusting and many things were being tossed around yet I stood in the field, my arms stretched out much like a cross and looking into the heavens as I explored my loss. The internal rains still not subsiding.
Though dangerous, I found the need to walk some of the wooded trails, even though I had promised my wife I would stay in the clear fields. I do not usually lie to my wife but this was a promise I could not keep. I walked through the woods, past the “bone yard” named in part for all the stones in the area and also possibly due to the pets and other things that had been buried there in the past century and a half or so. I watched some trees as they appeared ready to yield to the wind yet somehow they stayed standing. I wished my sister had been able to withstand her illness. So many deaths. So many lost dreams but I’m still here. At times I almost felt envious of them. Their pain had ended but I’m still here forced to find a way to live without them. Though I planned to fight for life as long as I could, I wondered at times how many battles I had left in me and if I wanted to continue to fight them. In those moments I thought of my family and knew that I had not finished my tour of duty yet.
The brook was raging as I walked along the trail at its border. Some of the bank had been washed away, undermining large areas. I felt the need to feel the water and walked to the edge, with caution and bent over to wash my hands in it. I felt its coldness and as I did my head began to feel a bit clearer. Walking the rest of the trail and up the road to the barn I felt again. I was sad, full of loss but also determined to make whatever life I had left be even more meaningful. I felt a sense that my priorities were about to become redefined.
Drenched, I walked into my office and sat down, thinking of the challenges before us all during this pandemic. I called the funeral home and paid as much as I could afford toward the costs of my sisters final expenses. She had been disabled and had no funds to cover it and I did not want my nephews to have to face it all by themselves.
The next day I resumed sessions and dreaded anytime a client asked me if I was ok and how sorry they were to learn that my sister had passed. I thanked them and changed the focus back to them as it was their session and not mine.
As the weeks have passed, we have continued to serve others even though we went almost two months without a payment from some of our insurance companies. As folks became scared about the ability to secure food and toilet paper I called upon my resources to purchase commercial cases of toilet paper as well as chicken breasts and thighs, steak and pork. I packaged them, froze them and arranged for all to be given to those who needed it. We did so anonymously. We are far from the only ones doing so.
Grieving is tough on anyone but there are extra layers of grief when the death or impending loss of a loved one happens during a pandemic. So many cultural, spiritual and other socially based ways to process grief and find some sort of closure or new normal are lost during a pandemic. Add those complications to being on the front lines of mental health: an ever increasing demand for services while also having to rapidly change from in person to telehealth and trying to manage payroll and bill paying while not receiving payments from insurance companies on top of having many clients who suddenly have lost their income and in many cases insurance but refusing to turn anyone away during a global crisis and you get an idea of what it looks and feels like when you are a director of a small independent nonprofit. Having to make the call to close the offices to in person sessions and also deciding when to reopen is a lot or pressure: make a wrong call and you put your team and community at risk. Still, when you take a job, you take on the responsibility that comes with the role.
So as you read this, either as a fellow clinician or as a friend or loved one of one, please know that after the pandemic calms, you just may see many of us take a week or two off so that we can begin to truly process what we have lost. Many of us are running on fumes, instinct and decades of training. We are hurting as we are human but as the line in that old war movie goes “I ain't got time to bleed” but bleed we do and heal we must, as and when we can. When most of the world finally emerges from their seclusion, many of us will enter ours voluntarily, at least until we have had some time to recover…
Love to all who continue to serve others during this pandemic. Anyone that continues to punch a clock is a first responder during these times, whether the grocery clerk, food delivery, truck driver etc. Bless you all. May we find the other side of this thing very soon.
Be safe, do good
”Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, clinical & executive director of Community Counseling of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). He is internationally certified as a Counsellor and Counsellor Supervisor in the USA and Canada (C.C.C., C.C.C.-S, NCC, ACS). He can be contacted at email@example.com His program has also been featured on NBC https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/A-Happy-Place-Wolcott-Therapeutic-Farm-Redefining-Mental-Health-Care-563389381.html