“Happy birthday, darling.”
Those were the last words that my grandfather, my dad’s father, uttered to his wife. Confused and distressed, my grandmother, the recipient of that muffled statement, watched as the paramedics carried her husband into the ambulance on her birthday. At this point she feared the worst, like all of us would have: that an invisible parasite, which she had previously known only from the mouths of news reporters, had taken hold of her beloved.
A week beforehand, none of us envisioned this happening—none of us thought that he would reach this point. Everything seemed as normal as it could have in the midst of a pandemic. Restaurants and bars closed, governments implemented lockdowns, and I had already forgotten what my cramped McBain dorm room looked like, but everyone around me was still healthy, including my college-aged friends. Thus, the coronavirus still seemed so far away. My family and I followed the statistics of the virus, tried to become masters in the novel art of social distancing, and of course sympathized with the countless individuals who contracted the disease. Nonetheless, it still felt abstract because, at that point, we didn’t personally know anyone whose (physical) health had been affected.
Naturally, my family and I still worried about the loved ones who were most vulnerable to the pestilence: the old, the immunocompromised, etc. We worried about my grandparents—the three who were still alive at that point—all of whom unfortunately lived far away. Every night, we called my mom’s mother, who has lived alone since the death of her husband four years ago. She told us that she never left the house. Though this lack of social interaction made her feel sad, she was going to be physically okay—that was enough to comfort me and my family.
I also texted my dad’s parents. In the midst of her sending me home remedies to prevent and treat the disease, this grandmother also assured me that she was staying in the house. The response from my grandfather, her husband, was more disconcerting. He was still going to work and visiting the gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship.
My grandmother didn’t seem too concerned about him; my family and I weren’t either. However, I did have a small voice in my head that would remind me of the (now) omnipresent fact that he was an “at-risk” individual. What he was doing was endangering others, but it also endangered himself. But he couldn’t become a CNN statistic; he was my grandfather. He was the austere man with the rough hands and the deep voice who treated my sisters and me as adults. He was one of the strongest people I knew. It was inconceivable to think that he could fall victim to something that didn’t even feel real.
As the week progressed, he started coughing, and his breathing became more unstable. Luckily, my dad was able to connect him to one of our family friends, a doctor who conducted online checkups with him. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the only option in this new medical landscape that has become overridden with patients like my grandfather. As these symptoms worsened, we knew that we had to get him to the hospital. The next day—the morning of my grandmother’s birthday—he was taken away, and all of us at this point still thought he’d recover. We thought that he’d be fine.
He passed away that night while quarantined in the hospital. He was alone. I still remember when I found out: My mom walked into my room the morning after his death and simply said, “Your grandfather has passed away.”
She then left, crying. Confused and half awake, I fell back asleep—thinking, or hoping, that it wasn’t real. When my alarm woke me a few hours later, however, I knew it was when I opened my phone to condolence messages from friends who confronted this reality before I could. Upon entering my parents’ room, I hugged my mom and dad. Both struggled to accept his death, something that seemed so impossible just a few days before.
In this sense, reiterating the health guidelines of the CDC or reminding you to stay 6 feet away from anyone outside of your household seems futile: You know this. However, urge those close to you to do what they have to in order to prevent this disease—which deceptively seems so far away, especially as a college student—from turning them into statistics of a pandemic, fatalities of a war that doesn’t seem to have a beginning or end.
Doing so will save you from the unique experience of losing a beloved in the time of COVID-19: a new reality that my family and I confronted when comparing the wake of this death to that of my mom’s father four years before. When he died, we were able to hold a religious ceremony with his friends and family. We were able to hug his widowed wife. Some of us were able to stand by his bedside when his eyes closed. We couldn’t do those things this time.
Social distancing created something new when dealing with death: It prevented us from grieving properly. It disabled us from physically being with and comforting my grandmother. Instead, we called her and tried to say what we could to make things seem a little more normal. One of us wished her a happy belated birthday, to which she responded, “Thank you, but it wasn’t a happy birthday.”
Gurtej Gill is a sophomore studying psychology and English at Columbia College and is on the Opinion staff. Isolated in his Texas home, he enjoys reading, binging television shows with his family, and attempting various unsuccessful diets.
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