Journeying through grief together
How a family copes with the loss of their father
By Collette Davis
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things … so faith, hope, love remain, these three, but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 1:7, 13).
Ours is a story of love.
Our experience with Covid-19 began similarly to that of many other families in the spring of 2020: isolating at home, working from home, attending Mass and school online, talking to friends by video, and playing games online.
Our kids have reminded us over the past year that social distancing and wearing a mask are nothing more or less than love of neighbor.
At the beginning, my husband Mark told me that all the sacrifices we were making were in hopes of preventing as many empty chairs at the dinner table as possible. I focused on the present moment and trusting in God.
While we prayed for all those suffering, I thanked God for all the blessings in my life: countless early morning prayers on my patio, long talks with our children who were home from school, frequent bike rides, many socially distanced visits with my parents and brother, and occasional extended visits with my sister’s family.
Then our world changed. My parents’ Covid symptoms started the second week of November. Rodney and Kathy Cole lived in a rural area and had been doing their best to socially distance and wear masks. Mom recovered quickly, but Dad was admitted to the hospital and, shortly after, to the ICU. He was 66 years old, healthy, and had neither pre-existing conditions nor risk factors for severe Covid disease.
My nurse-practitioner brain went into overdrive to get him the best of care.
Dad was transferred to what I thought was the best hospital choice for him. No one was permitted to be with him, so we “visited” him from the parking lot, three stories down from his window, almost daily. He would look out his window, and we all talked to him on speaker phone. One evening, my brother even brought one of the propane trucks from the family business to park where Dad could see it.
We prayed. Oh, how we prayed. We arranged a healing service from the parking lot where our family and several healing ministers from our church prayed with hands outstretched toward the window where Dad was sitting. A local priest covertly entered the hospital through the emergency department to provide Dad with the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
Rodney Cole was a man of strong faith. His actions spoke to his character, and he did not engage in long conversations. He changed countless lives even while he was confined to the hospital.
I had “care conferences” with nurses and doctors six to ten times every day at all times of the day and night, and they constantly told me how Dad was leading prayers with his care team, sometimes for up to 20 minutes!
He became great friends with his housekeeper Fatoumata, a Muslim woman with whom he would pray together multiple times a day. Being from rural Ohio, my dad had never met someone who was Muslim, and he soon considered her a friend.
The suffering of being separated from Dad during this most difficult time cannot be explained in words. As a daughter and nurse practitioner, I longed with all my heart to be with him and to provide his care. We “celebrated” Thanksgiving from the parking lot, and the nurses helped transfer cards to and from Dad to help celebrate Mom’s birthday and my parents’ 47th wedding anniversary.
All the while, we could not believe this nightmare was happening.
Dad’s request for an iPhone was our biggest blessing, since he had only a flip phone before. On days he was feeling okay, he would call me multiple times a day to ask, “How am I doing?” We knew it was a good day when he called Mom several times before breakfast. Our Facetime calls with video were among the greatest gifts he ever gave us.
Dad would tell us how hard he was working to get better for us. He would say, “I pray, focus on my breathing, and read a few of my cards.” He received hundreds of get-well cards.
However, our inability to be with him was excruciating, and we tried to convince hospital staff and administration on multiple occasions to let Mom be with him.
Several times we were told that he would likely be intubated, and then his condition would improve. Dad worked hard, doing all he could to get better, and his providers were repeatedly surprised he was doing as well as he was.
On December 3rd, in the middle of Mass, I received the call — Dad needed to be sedated and intubated.
We rushed to the hospital to sit in the parking lot and be as close to him as possible. He knew we were there. We spoke to him through Facetime. He was unable to talk but raised his hand. We all told him how much we loved him. We prayed and were optimistic about his chances. We kept vigil there in the parking lot.
On December 4, at around 4 am, I was told by a kind physician on the phone,
“I am concerned for your dad’s survival.” My heart broke.
Mom, my two siblings, and I rushed to the hospital with our families, as we had been told early in his stay that if it came to the end of his life, we could be with him.
At our request, the care team came to the parking lot to meet with us. We were told that the hospital policy had changed and only Mom would be able to be with him. We were
devastated, but so thankful that she could be with her husband of 47 years.
Our families spent the afternoon and evening together outside his ICU window. We prayed with outstretched hands, and eventually Mom held the phone by Dad so we could each tell him goodbye.
My siblings and I waited with a candle on top of my brother’s truck in hopes Mom could feel us with her. We focused on the glow from his window of the nativity nightlight Mom had given Dad for their anniversary just three days earlier. I couldn’t bear to watch, but my brother told us he could see the silhouettes of Dad’s care team beneath Dad’s blinds.
My dad was a constant in my life. For as long as I can remember, he has always been there, willing to sacrifice in every way for our family. He was a devoted, kind, caring and sound advisor. He was a rock.
How do you cope with such a loss? An unexpected, tragic loss in a world where people hold vastly different opinions about Covid-19 and thus about what precautions are needed.
I have survived these past few months only through the grace of God. Our beloved family priest, Father Mike, has been with us throughout the journey. He explained to Mom the role of grace in life being like the caffeine in coffee — it is the essential thing. I have been needing this grace “caffeine” on an hourly basis in recent months.
Living the spirituality of unity provided a frame of reference when my world was crumbling, as waves of grief washed over me. I meditated through this season and finally understood who Jesus crucified and forsaken is. I understand that he is present in every moment of my life when I encounter any type of suffering. I learned to name Jesus forsaken and am working on welcoming him. I can even occasionally go beyond the cross and thank him for blessings, like the sacred time I was able to spend with Dad on Facetime. Frequently, though, I struggled and reached out to friends who assured me that they were loving Jesus forsaken on my behalf.
Love of neighbor was a signature of Dad’s life and a highlight of his time in the hospital.
At Dad’s insistence, my sister arranged care packages, usually food, for the entire unit. My parents have always helped others, frequently anonymously. They have inspired this attitude in their children and grandchildren as well. We were able to talk with Dad about the 25 days of Christmas packages our Cole family shared with people this year. After his passing, people who received the packages told stories that brought our entire family joy even through our grief.
We lived together the Word of Life for November and December. November’s Word of Life was “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” December’s Word of Life — “The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?” — challenged me more. I was struggling to see the light in my life. I kept repeating the verse in faith, and I was so thankful when rays of light began to enter my soul.
Keeping Jesus present among us is the reason our family experienced transformation of our hearts both during and after the hospital stay. I would frequently ask Jesus to be present before I made calls to the hospital, when requesting staff to meet us in the parking lot, and before having challenging care conversations with family. Jesus never let me down.
The Church provided me tremendous support during this time. I began to need daily Mass to help me align my will to God’s throughout each day. At Mass, God provides me with my daily bread in both the Word and the Eucharist.
Accepting the will of God has proven to be a challenge. I always prayed for Dad’s healing but did not pray out loud for God’s will to be done. A few times, I even refused to pray the Our Father … I begged God to transform my heart. I have since realized that no matter how difficult it might be, the only way to experience heaven and have God’s peace is to align my will with his.
I called on Mary to hold my father when we could not be with him, especially during the last few days of his life. I would pray, “Please hold him Mary, because we cannot.” I call on her now to hold Mom as she walks through these difficult days of grief.
The Holy Spirit has provided guidance on God’s will every step of the way. I recently found a pair of socks depicting the Holy Spirit as a dove, and I wear them to work to have a visual reminder to listen to him in every moment.
Realizing that unity does not mean uniformity, we allow each other to journey through grief in our own way, with each having their sacred space.
Loving one another after losing a loved one in a pandemic is proving to be a unique challenge. Those we encounter in the world have polarized views and frequently voice those views when I least expect it. I struggle to love when I see or hear people who resist Covid-19 precautions, sometimes even boastfully. When this happens at church, it is especially difficult.
All the reasons that individuals give for resisting these precautions seem to involve the word “I” rather than the concept of love of neighbor.
Sometimes I think it likely that Dad would still be with us if everyone around him had fully embraced love of neighbor. We might not have had to spend the last weeks of his life keeping vigil with outstretched hands from a hospital parking lot. We might not have had an empty chair at the Christmas table. These thoughts make me sad and angry.
But then I hear Dad’s voice as I pray in the early morning hours before dawn: “I walked with Mary this morning. It is so beautiful. Life on earth is short and we have eternity, so get it right.”
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