My Beloved Sister Died During The COVID-19 Pandemic—And We Will Never Have Clear Answers
I spent the first month of the COVID crisis inside a hospital, caring for my husband as he went through his fourth surgery for brain cancer. One of my closest and best links to the outside world was my sister, who lived across the street. From my husband’s hospital room I could see her building, if not her apartment. She and I messaged each other about the chaos on the street in between us. Tents erected for testing potential cases. The death toll. The cacophony ringing through the air at shift change.
The day after my husband was discharged was the first night of Passover. My sister and I would see each other on Zoom, as so many families would, instead of in person. Only she didn’t show up. The next day her body was found in her apartment, dead from an apparent stroke or seizure. She was 37.
Two days before she had been just fine, or so it seemed. But she had walked up and down that street with the COVID tents often. She had been in and out of the same 7-11 as hospital staff and patients. Everywhere she went, the risk of exposure to COVID was higher than anywhere else in Illinois except Cook County Jail.
In my family, in our grief and confusion and horror, we argued about whether or not she had COVID. There weren’t enough tests for the living, so the dead did not warrant them. We devoured every article about symptoms and complications. When the news reported blood clots were common with this disease, it fit what we thought to have happened. When Canadian doctors started reporting neurological symptoms, we dissected everything she had said and done in the days before her death, looking for clues.
When the coroner had finished the practical autopsy, a close family friend, a mortician, managed to get me into a closed funeral home to view her body.
Before I go on, I want you to know that as of this writing it has been six months to the day since I stepped out of that funeral home. I want you to know that I am not the same person who stepped in. I want you to know that there is nothing on this earth that can prepare you to see the corpse of your big sister, damaged and swollen, lovingly arranged so as to hide the worst of her disfigurement, but cold, and still, and sickeningly wrong.
There is nothing on this planet that can prepare you for the feeling that you are doing something profane when you leave, knowing you must leave, knowing you cannot live out your life on your hands and knees on the bleach-soaked carpet of a funeral home, your mask soaked with tears, changing your gloves each time you dare touch her, knowing you have hugged her for the last time, brushed away her hair for the last time, felt her skin for the last time.
There is nothing that can prepare you for the hollowness of knowing it is too late to say things you never did in the 35 years you existed as a younger sister. Sure, you can say them now, but it’s too late, it is too fucking late and she will never know. You walk into that building a grieving version of the person you were before.
You walk in as “Shana’s little sister.” You walk in afraid, and anxious, and miserable, but determined to do for her something so many dead from the previous weeks never got. You go in determined to witness her. To make sure, for a moment at least even if it is far too late, that she is with family. You go in to be with her before she is loaded onto a truck and carted off to a crematorium that is operating around the clock. You walk in for one last look before she is nothing more than dust in a box in the mail to parents or siblings or spouses or children who never had a chance to say goodbye.
But you leave as something else. You leave ashamed. You leave in horror. You leave knowing you could have done and said more, knowing you left her behind. You leave as a person who can look upon their sister’s corpse, breathe in the smell of antiseptic, catalogue where her eyes are glued shut, or her mouth forced closed, how her hair is covering the worst of the damage but she would never, ever wear her hair that way, and hear her voice in your ear whispering, laughing, “You’ve got to admit, I make a good-looking corpse.”
You leave as the oldest sister.
By the time I was permitted to view my sister’s body, my family had begun the ritual of sitting shiva. In Jewish tradition, the family sits for seven days, together, their home open to mourners and well-wishers, and the community comes to support them in their grief. They bring food. They bring stories. They listen and cry and hug. But in April 2020, none of that was possible. My parents and younger sister, already together in Michigan, sat in their living room, but I sat in my bedroom, my children coming and going. Each day, for six or seven hours, we logged onto Zoom and family and friends logged on and off, making small talk, recounting the news, offering condolences. And each evening a rabbi joined us to lead the Mourner’s Kaddish.
There were no casseroles. No Entenmann’s chocolate cake. There were no hugs for me, even, until the time for the kaddish came and my children wrapped their arms around me and held me up while I sobbed.
My parents and surviving biological sister found some comfort in the approximated version of this ritual. They found some comfort in sitting together in the living room, watching the faces of their loved ones appear and disappear again, engaging in one conversation at a time, chit-chatting on one topic at a time. Standing as one to recite the kaddish, crying, telling stories about Shana.
It did nothing for my grief. I could see them together, though my mother, who hates the camera, mostly stayed off screen. I was just another face in another box, among the other faces in other boxes. And the more faces appeared, the smaller and farther away my parents and surviving sister became. And when shiva ended, the seven days of Zoom calls, punctuated by my trip to view her body, there was no freezer full of leftovers. There were no piles of dishes to busy myself cleaning. There was nothing to do but sit inside my house and think of all the thousands of families who never even got that.
In the six months since her death we have not had a funeral, or a memorial. There is no final resting place for my sister. There is no marker, or grave.
If there is a defining characteristic of this pandemic, of the cruelty and pointlessness of our government’s response, it is this: I lost my sister, and nobody who loves me and grieves with me can even give me a hug.
Life in these times is complex. Schools are scrambling now the way hospitals were in March, trying to figure out what is safe and what is practical and what is necessary. Families are exhausted by the isolation, tired of seeing nobody but each other, ready to expand their bubbles, desperate to get back to normal. But there will never be a return to normal for those of us who have lost somebody to this pandemic. When the time comes that we can gather together for holidays, there is a chair that will always be empty, a laugh that will always be missing, a smile we are always waiting to see. And the longer it goes on, the more people in this country will share that grief, that horrible, un-huggable sadness.
Since her death, I have spent another two months in the hospital, looking out a window at her apartment building. I have been in and out of the 7-11 where she shopped. I have walked up and down her street.
I still hear her voice in my ear.
I am still waiting to be able to hold her.
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