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‘Like virtually everything else, our grief is on hold until all this is over’
When my family arrived at the cemetery on Bathurst Street, the hearse was waiting for us at the side of the road. Several employees from the funeral home were outside the vehicle wearing blue surgical masks and gloves. Virtually no one embraced as they left their respective cars. We recognized one another with solemn head nods or exchanged condolences from a safe distance. Before the short walk from the road to the grave, the attending rabbi gave a short speech to thank the attendees and emphasize the need to maintain social distancing.
My grandfather, Abraham Fish, died on the evening of March 17. Earlier that same day, Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19.
That morning, my grandfather was rushed to the emergency ward at Sunnybrook Hospital from an assisted living facility. He had recently moved there after spending several weeks in and out of medical facilities due to a chronic kidney problem. At some point Tuesday morning he lost consciousness and never woke up.
The place my grandfather lived, like most care homes in the province, was under strict lockdown because of COVID-19. No one other than essential staff members were allowed inside and, as a result, it had been a few days since I or any other family members had been able to see him.
My mother called me late Tuesday morning and said that my grandfather had taken a turn and that it looked like he was not going to make it. At the time, I was in self-isolation with my girlfriend in an apartment in Parkdale. The hospital was the last place I wanted to be, but I managed to put aside my hypochondria and make the drive north along eerily empty arterial roads.
At Sunnybrook Hospital, the only signs of the unfolding crisis were a placard inside the entrance directing patients who think they may have COVID-19 to a different wing of the hospital, and a nurse triaging visitors at the entrance to the ward. The nurse asked me if I had travelled recently, or if I was experiencing any symptoms. I told her I had some sniffles due to seasonal allergies but assured her that I had no fever or cough. She gave me a surgical mask to wear as I walked through to the ‘Blue Zone’ where my grandfather was being treated.
My grandfather was in an isolation room that you entered through a sliding glass door. There was no reason to believe he was infected with COVID-19, but everyone was still required to put on gloves, masks, face shields and gowns before going inside. When I arrived, my grandfather was unconscious and being kept alive by a series of intravenous drugs and supplemental oxygen.
I called my brother who lives in Israel using Facebook video chat so that he could see my grandfather and have the chance to say goodbye. My cousin did the same with his sister in Uganda.
The hospital staff told us that they were going to move my grandfather to an adjacent room to clear the isolation area for other critical care patients who may need it. The new chamber was too small for everyone to fit at the same time so we would alternate between sitting at the bedside and waiting in the hallway. We were still required to de-gown and re-gown every time we entered or exited.
After several hours I left with my brother and cousin. We told the older relatives to call us to come back if anything changed. A short while later, my mom texted me to let me know that my grandfather was dead.
Jews handle death expeditiously. Custom dictates that you put the body in the ground as quickly as possible so that the family can begin the prescribed seven-day mourning period known as shiva. My grandfather’s heart stopped beating on Tuesday night and he was buried on Thursday morning. Because of the pandemic, only the closest family members were allowed to attend.
The restrictions meant that several people could not be physically present for the ceremony. My grandfather’s brother lives in Montreal and decided that travelling to Toronto would be too risky. My brother and cousin considered flying home from abroad to attend, but even if they had gotten on planes and come back immediately, their mandatory two-week quarantine upon re-entering the country would have precluded them from attending the funeral or shiva.
I held up my iPhone during the funeral so that my brother could watch and pray from his apartment in Tel Aviv. My cousin did the same with my grandfather’s brother in Montreal. My father gave a moving eulogy, during which he expressed his heartfelt thanks to the funeral home and cemetery employees who were present despite the risk to their personal safety.
After the funeral, I disposed of my neoprene gloves and retrieved a bottle of alcohol hand wash that I tactically left in the cup dispenser of my mother’s car. When the others saw the sanitizer, some of them walked up to me so I could squeeze some into their outstretched palms.
Usually, shivas are a bustling affair with every tangential acquaintance of the deceased or their family feeling morally obligated to make an appearance. Under normal circumstances, several hundred people would have descended on my grandmother’s home to eat salted fish and exchange anecdotes about good ol’ Abe. As it was, only 11 of us were present at the house the first day after the funeral. As the mourning period proceeded and the government’s restrictions became increasingly tight, that number steadily dwindled until the sixth of seven days, when we all decided that out of caution, it would be better for us to stay away from my grieving grandmother entirely.
At the best of times, a death in the family is traumatic and complicated. The current fear and confusion surrounding the outbreak have meant that our emotions regarding my grandfather’s death have been forced to take a back seat to our concern for the safety of those who are still with us. Like virtually everything else, our grief is on hold until all this is over.