A personal reflection: Life, loss and more loss during the pandemic
When I put myself into isolation, I began the loneliest time of my life. I had, in what seems to be another life, survived being alone in a house with only books and a radio to keep me company, and no contact with the outside world except for comrades who dropped by with food and brief conversation. This isolation was on a different level.
When my daughter, Ayanda and I came home on 26 March 2020, I sat down and cried. My daughter, concerned, wanted to know what was wrong. My reply was that we don’t know when we will see our friends and family again, we don’t know who will survive and we don’t know what the world will look like after all this.
Ayanda suggested we think of what we can do under these circumstances. Like most people, we got involved in WhatsApp groups, telling jokes, exchanging horror stories of what was happening in Italy and the rest of the world. We exchanged good sites with friends to shop for groceries. I tried to keep busy, working on a few things for the faculty (I retired from UCT at the end of February 2020), through Zoom meetings and keeping in touch with friends and family who lived alone. Ayanda and I had regular movie nights with popcorn. We soon settled into a routine.
As the pandemic progressed and the lockdown took its effect on people’s ability to feed themselves, I felt I had to do more. I got involved in trying to distribute food to families and I got involved in contact tracing as I just had to do something. The very first case I got involved with needed to be removed to an isolation facility as she lived in a shack and it was impossible to isolate.
Through this work, I came into direct contact with people’s stories. I listened as they talked of their home circumstances. One of my earlier cases told me he couldn’t self-isolate, but he also couldn’t leave his shack as it would be taken over by others while he was away. I heard stories of people who didn’t want others to know that they had tested positive for Covid-19 because they would be “chased out” of their homes. One man who had been in isolation from his family for a week just wanted to hug his family.
Sure, these are the more extreme stories, but they are the ones that stick in my mind as I battle with my own first-hand experience of what people go through in isolation and bereavement through the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Sunday, 7 June 2020, my sister, Jackie alerted us that our uncle, 76, married to my mother’s youngest sister, 80, was not well. As I lived closest to them and because they lived alone, early on Monday morning, I went to see what I could do to help.
I donned my mask and took the recommended precautions. By Tuesday, I suspected what my uncle was suffering from and when I immediately put myself into isolation, I began the loneliest time of my life. I had, in what seems to be another life, survived being alone in a house with only books and a radio to keep me company, and no contact with the outside world except for comrades who dropped by with food and brief conversation. This isolation was on a different level.
I am privileged. My bedroom is huge – a one-bedroomed Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) house could probably fit into my room. I have my own bathroom and access to my rooftop where I can see the Table Mountain range and Groote Schuur Hospital in the distance. I have access to fibre, DStv, a laptop and an iPad. I have a smartphone and can communicate easily, order food for delivery, had my knitting brought to me, enough books to fill a library and really lacked for nothing, except the human touch.
My family and friends made sure I had more books, soup, chocolates, flowers and food dropped off at the gate, and my ever willing daughter made treks up and down the stairs with food at regular intervals. They (Ayanda prefers this pronoun), sat at the door to my bedroom and talked to me about their research proposal that was due and kept me informed of the antics of the dogs when they took them for walks.
Ayanda arranged that we watched the same movies at the same time – me on my iPad and they downstairs in the TV room so we could discuss it afterwards. My friends sent me beautiful music that helped me to relax or dance around the room. Others arranged Zoom parties to help to reduce the loneliness of the isolation. For exercise, I ran up and down the stairs, and put on YouTube videos to exercise to. All this is very different to what my cases told me of their experiences. I felt privileged and loved.
Throughout this time, I had regular contact with my cousins. My uncle and then my aunt were hospitalised and diagnosed positive with Covid 19. On 14 June 2020, my uncle died. This is when the loneliness became acute. My daughter stood at the door of my bedroom crying. I couldn’t comfort Ayanda and they couldn’t comfort me. I cried on the phone with my cousins and the rest of my family. WhatsApp messages of support poured in. WhatsApp calls came from around the world and yet I felt more lonely than I had ever felt in my life.
I heard how my aunt, also in the hospital, had held my uncle’s hand as he took his last breath. She said she was at peace. Wonderful nurses and doctors at Groote Schuur kept us up to date with her progress and told me how they helped her to sign the papers for her husband’s cremation. I had heard from my contacts how difficult they found it to get information about their loved ones in hospital. All the numbers they tried rang without reply.
I had access to the staff through my previous work and they ensured that I had daily updates on how my aunt was doing. I hugged myself as my colleagues told me that my aunt was improving, despite her advanced age. I allowed myself to hope. My aunt had improved and she was being sent to the CTICC field hospital. The family was afraid that they would lose the very tenuous contact with my aunt. I immediately found out who I could contact at the CTICC through my friends.
The ambulance to take my aunt to CTICC was delayed by more than a day and finally, my cousins arranged for a private ambulance to take her there. Once again, we had daily contact through the staff on duty. The staff made video calls to me and I was able to see and talk to my aunt. She looked frail and struggled for breath, but had her normal fighting spirit. She told me she loved me and to tell my sisters she loved them. She said she was having difficulty with her dentures and couldn’t eat properly.
I cried so much after that call. Ayanda stood at the door crying as well. It was day seven of my isolation and I could not risk hugging them. Ayanda ran downstairs and came back with one of their huge teddy bears that they threw into the room. “Hug that when you cry, it will make you feel like you are hugging me.” Through our tears, we laughed. Three days later, Ayanda and I could not stand the separation. I went downstairs and when they saw me, they ran into my arms and we stood and hugged for about 10 minutes. I will never take the therapeutic value of hugs for granted again.
On Sunday, day 12 of quarantine for me, a doctor from the CTICC phoned again with a video chat. My aunt looked more frail and was struggling to breathe. I struggled to hear what she was saying. I heard her say to the doctor to tell my nieces that I love them. The doctor told me that she was struggling to breathe. Even hearing that news, I still hoped there would be an improvement.
I was not ready for the news on Tuesday morning that my aunt had died. In my mind, I was preparing for when she left the hospital and what she would need in terms of support. I am devastated. This vibrant woman who had kept the faded and wilted flowers I had sent her for mother’s day because they reminded her of my love for her, was no longer alive. I am feeling such pain.
My experience of the Covid-19 epidemic is not unique. Millions of people across the world have gone through this pain. My situation is so much better than that of many of the people I spoke to while contact tracing.
I hear daily of people I know succumbing to the disease. We can’t get together as we usually do at times of bereavement, we can’t hug one another or touch hands and have meals together – all the rituals evolved over centuries to comfort and help the bereaved cope, are gone. We need to think of new rituals to help us share this pain.
I have been thinking of the simple acts that have comforted me through this time of bereavement. I received hundreds of messages on WhatsApp and email. I appreciated each of them. Yet it is the direct human interactions that have brought me most comfort. The group video chat with my nephew, his wife and baby, video chats with members of the family and friends, the phone calls from family and friends made me feel part of a community grieving together and supporting one another.
I also felt loved and supported through the flowers, the chocolates and food dropped off at my door. It made me feel part of a community. Even at a time when we can’t be physically together, we can use technology and simple, kind gestures to give much-needed comfort to one another. DM/MC
Gonda Perez recently retired from UCT where she was the Deputy Dean for Undergraduate Education and Operations in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
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