My younger brother, Tom Keveney, died last month. My family’s deep sadness was understandable and unavoidable, but the coronavirus pandemic ravaged our ability to mourn his death.
Tom, with the help of an excellent medical team, had been bravely fighting advanced cancer for more than four years. His most recent prognosis was not good, but the suddenness of his death was a surprise. That abruptness and a recent symptom raised the possibility of COVID-19, although he didn't have the most well-known symptoms and hadn’t been diagnosed with it.
As with thousands of mourning families, we’ll never know. Chalk it up as another brutal side effect of the coronavirus era.
Tom, a landscaper who loved fishing, crime novels and the Red Sox, died in his sleep after spending a great weekend with my brother, Pete, and my sister, Kate, in Connecticut. (I live in California.) I hope and pray it was without physical pain. I know it was without the shattering psychological pain faced by those who have been dying alone because the virus is preventing family members from being at their bedsides.
We’re all feeling loss resulting from the pandemic. It could be a graduation ceremony or a job; it’s likely to be freedom of movement and a basic sense of security. The fallout from COVID-19 makes the death of a family member inestimably worse.
My family’s experience isn’t unique; if anything, it’s too common in these unprecedented times. Many families’ losses have been crueler; each cuts to the bone. I’m not an expert, and I don’t pretend to offer advice on dealing with death. The best I can hope for is connection, a recognition of the feeling for whatever you have lost; an understanding of what others are going through; even a bit of girding for what may be coming down the road.
I had forgotten the raw pain of a loved one’s death because I hadn’t lost a family member in more than 20 years. Time, thankfully, helps soften that suffering, but the price may be paid in eventual numbness. When Tom died, it all came roaring back. Although the sensation is horrible, it’s natural, a healthy reaction and a start to grieving.
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What I don’t recall with past loss is being so frustrated, even angry – feelings that accompanied my family's inability to honor Tom’s passing properly. I blame that on the coronavirus, regardless of whether Tom had it. Death makes us realize the limits of our control, which isn’t the worst thing for our proud species. Pandemic restrictions, although justified, injected a devastating feeling of powerlessness.
In normal times, after learning of Tom’s death, I would have immediately flown to Connecticut, planned wake and funeral details and joined with friends and family for hugs, tears and some funny stories. Tom, known for his sense of humor, would have leaned toward the stories. But those options aren’t possible now.
I searched flights the day of Tom’s death, as if on autopilot, but a trip back to Connecticut wasn’t realistic. I didn’t want to get sick or raise the risk for others, from TSA workers to my family members. I would have been told to self-quarantine for two weeks as soon as I landed, anyway.
In addition, the traditional rites weren't available. A wake made little sense when the state wouldn’t allow more than five people in one place. Our family's Catholic church, like most places of worship, isn't performing funerals right now. Besides, we wouldn’t want Tom’s friends to risk their health by attending.
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Some families are conducting services via Zoom or holding family-only burials. There are even drive-thru viewings. Pete, Kate and I, the surviving members of our nuclear family, decided to postpone the funeral until we can join with our friends and others who love Tom, who was cremated. A quick look at newspaper obituaries indicates many families are doing the same.
My siblings fully supported my decision not to fly back to Connecticut right away, which is the best gift they could have given me. There’s so much guilt connected with death; it helps not to let coronavirus add more.
The loss of familiar rituals hit me harder than I expected. I most regret not having the chance to get together with my brother and sister at the time of sharpest grief, but I missed the comfort and order that comes with a funeral, too.
That includes the ceremonial elements and the chance to talk about Tom's life at the service, but also the surrounding tasks: making travel plans, alerting friends, getting a suit pressed. Those duties would have kept me busy and, happily, out of my own head for a few days. That’s not avoidance, just a welcome break. There will plenty of time to be alone with my thoughts.
Stuck in California, I felt adrift. I didn’t realize how much structure traditions provide when death jolts daily life. They set boundaries, allowing a few days away from regular routines, including work. (I’m fortunate to have a job and supportive colleagues.) Friends sent sympathy cards, food and plants; their caring helps more than they can know.
At home, I had too much time to think about the fact that I hadn’t seen Tom since last summer, although we spoke almost daily and I have visited frequently over the years. A trip back home now might have eased that regret or at least taken my mind off of it for a while.
At least my family still had the opportunity to commemorate Tom’s life through an obituary that ran in the New Haven Register and on the funeral home's website. We added some personal details. Friends gained the comfort of recognition; those who didn’t know Tom could understand why we think he’s a great guy. This essay is another not-so-subtle way to talk about my brother.
I posted a link to the obituary on Facebook to get wider reach. I’ve never been a big Facebook fan, but I received many comforting responses and now have a greater appreciation of its ability to connect – and of how much of my friends’ big life news I’ve missed over the years. I’m trying to do better on that front going forward.
Two weeks later, worried I hadn’t done enough to honor Tom publicly, I sought other options to make sure he was remembered. Twitter wasn’t a completely satisfying alternative, but it provided an efficient way to reach people. I tweeted a link to his obituary and received supportive responses. They’re not the same as cards or phone calls – I worry the deeper connection those old-school communications provide is being squeezed out by the convenience of digital condolences – but the messages were comforting. (Note to self: I've got work to do on sending cards, too.)
Without the clear demarcation point of a formal bereavement period, I went back to work at USA TODAY, where I write about television (and, lately, coronavirus), a few days after Tom’s death. It gave me something to do and made me feel useful. I also felt tired and had difficulty focusing, which likely stemmed from Tom’s death, the stress of stay-at-home restrictions and the oppressive cloud of COVID-19. I’m guessing that’s a common feeling.
Now, a month since Tom’s passing, I’m muddling through, helped by family, friends, colleagues and an excellent therapist. My brother and sister have good friends, too, and we have each other. It helps that I talk to them just about every day.
Phone calls, Zoom get-togethers and long, social-distanced walks with friends have eased the isolation of dealing with this by myself, across the country from family. Occasional runs – sorry, knees! – relieve stress. And time, as it has done before, is slowly softening the pain.
I'll be OK, thanks to the kind of support system many people don't have. But I’m still furious with coronavirus for depriving my family, and especially Tom, of his deserved goodbye.
Someday, we will gather with friends to mourn and celebrate Tom – as will so many other families waiting to honor their lost loved ones. I long for that day, although I have no idea when it will come. Just part of the toll of this damnable pandemic.