Covid 19 news continues to dominate our airwaves. The Coronavirus death toll continues to rise in the US and elsewhere. Social distancing is the new normal with no end in sight. The Coronavirus is not like other viral diseases. My father became a Covid 19 nursing home death statistic. He did not have any of the typical Covid-19 symptoms like virus patient breathing issues, fever or dry cough. He was fine when I talked to him on Saturday, April 18. He was found dead on Wednesday, April 23rd in his bed at his nursing home.
It is beyond tragic that we cannot be together with family and friends as we are unable to see him nor have a funeral. This is not only about the tens of thousand of people dying, but it is also about the thousands of family members that are left behind.
I wanted to make this video this week about his death in hopes that this will help other families that are going through a similar situation or perhaps have critically ill family members. While there are some things that we cannot do after they have died from Coronavirus, there are certain things that we can do to prepare. I never thought in a million years that I would make a video like this. And in many ways, it still feels surreal. I hope you are keeping your loved ones safe.
My father, a sculptor, was living in a nursing home on Long Island after his dementia diagnosis in 2016. My dad turned 89 on April 3rd. I talked to him last Saturday and he was completely fine. By Wednesday night, he was dead from Covid-19.
If you have been following the YouTube channel, you know that my mother passed away 6 months ago after 19 years caring for her – she had a massive stroke in 2001 and then was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2009. So death is something that I’ve talked about quite a bit recently on the channel. It’s an important part of life. We don’t talk about it enough so that when death arrives…and it will arrive…we are a mess with no direction of what to do.
Even though I watched the news and saw that nursing homes were being affected at a higher rate somehow I thought my father would be immune. He is a survivor and was as tough as they came. But he too became a statistic. We see these numbers growing every day and they don’t mean much to most people. But if it is your parent, spouse, sibling, child, friend, you feel the one number and that can be overwhelming. It’s not only millions of people dying but we have to be reminded that it is also even more millions now without their mother, father, brother, sister, child, friend.
Normally, it would take me a while to share publicly. But I feel like we are in the middle of this pandemic and million more families will experience what my family is experiencing. No one is immune. So I find it important to share what happened so that you can be better prepared, ask the right questions – ones that I wish I did – in the event you have a loved one in a nursing home, institution or in the hospital.
My father was put on lockdown on March 22nd. His dementia affected mainly his short term memory so I imagine it was hard for him to wrap his head around the nurses wearing their PPE all the time. On Saturday, April 18th we talked to him on the phone telling him (again) that we wouldn’t be able to go and visit him anytime soon. He said he was fine and that we didn’t have to worry about coming to see him. On the following Monday, I found out that his nursing home had Covid cases. I don’t know why I was surprised but I was. My husband and cousin advised me about what to ask the nursing home. These are questions YOU should ask if your parent or loved one lives in a senior living facility. Some of these questions you can ask in the event you or a loved one is hospitalized.
How many cases of Covid are there in the facility?
Have there been any deaths due to Covid?
Are the Covid patients being quarantined away from the healthy patients? On a separate floor or at least a separate wing.
If not, what kind of procedures and protocols do you have in place to ensure the healthy patients stay healthy?
Are the medical staff, especially nurses, solely dedicated to taking care of Covid patients? Or are they caring for healthy patients as well?
If they are caring for both sick and healthy patients, how are they ensuring that they are not spreading the virus?
Do you have adequate PPE for the staff?
What happens if the patient needs hospitalization?
At what point do you contact the family?
What happens when there is a death?
What is the family expected to do?
After I found out on Monday that the nursing home had cases, I called on Tuesday and was reassured they were doing everything to keep the Covid patients separate. But they were on the same floor as my father so I knew now that he was in danger. Although I’m sure the nursing and medical staff were doing all that they could to keep the virus contained, it seems that it is nearly impossible. On Wednesday afternoon, we received a call that he was found unresponsive on the toilet. He was placed in his bed with oxygen and was resting. I requested a video call with my dad but they couldn’t arrange it until the following day.
He apparently ate a little bit of his dinner and was very passive and quiet. He refused his evening medication so the evening nurse told the overnight nurse to keep an eye out for him. When the overnight nurse went to check in on him at 12:30, he was gone. They tried to reach us 3 kids but we were all sleeping. Somehow my sister woke up at 2:00am hearing the phone ring. She then called me on my landline. As you can imagine, your heart races when the phone rings in the middle of the night, fearing the worst. And this time the worst was reality.
All I kept thinking was, “What the hell just happened? He wasn’t sick. He didn’t have any of the typical symptoms – fever, dry cough, respiratory issues. Yes he was found unresponsive and was placed on oxygen. But he was dead 8 hours later? We dug deeper and did some research to find that some seniors have been having symptoms of confusion and extreme lethargy and none of the other typical symptoms we keep hearing about. This virus isn’t just one thing. The only thing that brought me solace was that he didn’t suffer very long or very much and he didn’t have to die in a hospital.
If your loved one should die, the main problem right now is that families are not allowed to see their dead loved ones. We were not able to go to the nursing home. The one big thing I regret is not getting on a video call to at least see him right after he passed away. It’s hard because you are not in the right state of mind and for me it was unexpected and in the middle of the night so I was not thinking clearly. But if it is death due to Covid-19, you will not be able to see them so if you feel like you need some acceptance because there’s really no closure – then I recommend asking the nurse to do a video call. We were scheduled to have a video call with him the following day but he died that night.
I called the nursing home to confirm what had happened after I talked with my sister. They told me I had to call a funeral home to have his body removed. Basically I would have to Google funeral homes and pick one. This is probably the worst thing you can ask someone to do when your loved one has just died. “Are you freaking kidding me right now?” was the only thing that went through my head. Then I thought of the funeral director we used for my mom 6 months prior. We developed a great relationship over the past few months and I even interviewed her for Modern Aging about home funerals. Everything we did for my mom couldn’t be farther from what I was experiencing with my dad. I called Amy Cunningham from Fitting Tribute Funeral Services and couldn’t believe it – she answered the phone at 2:30am and said she would take care of my dad and make sure he would be safe no matter what. Lesson to learn? Do research on funeral directors and homes now – ask your friends and family. Yeah, it might feel morbid but having someone you don’t know or trust suddenly be responsible for your parent or loved one especially under this kind of stress is almost unbearable.
The reality is that even if you have a funeral home, right now with the enormous number of deaths, they may or may not be able to accept your case because they have no place to store them. There are just too many of them. I was lucky enough to have a relationship with Amy so that’s why she was able to take care of us and my dad. Honestly she is a Godsend. Apparently there are people who have died in their homes and they are still waiting for someone to pick them up 10 days later. Seriously I can’t even imagine…
Amy was able to secure his cremation date — May 22nd. One long month – that’s how backed up the crematoriums are. He was taken to a freezer truck essentially where he will be until his cremation. This is so crazy. Those of you who may not know the role of a funeral director – essentially that person arranges for the pick up of the body. They normally arrange for the cleaning and embalming of the body. Embalming by the way is really toxic and does not have to be done. I found that out when my mom passed. The funeral director helps with burial or cremation details coordinating with the family She also arranges for his death certificate coordinating with the medical examiner’s office. It’s important to have someone who has your best interest in mind and not just ripping you off while you are in a vulnerable emotional state. Those people exist so you want to be be aware.
So during this time of Covid, there are no proper funerals. No viewings. No gatherings. Just direct to cremation. The fact that we cannot see his body made me realize that viewing the body is important to us as human beings. It doesn’t give us closure but it does help us provide acceptance of the death. Without it, you feel like you are floating, imagining if what is happening is truly real or not, wondering that, maybe just maybe, it’s a mistake. But there is no mistake. My father is gone.
What can you do in lieu of having a funeral or getting together? We had a really nice family Zoom call – we laughed, we cried, we reminisced. The day of his cremation, our immediate family will go to the cemetery, be physically distanced but at the very least we can be there at the moment he will be cremated. We are having friends and family write letters, make pictures, create art to be placed in the cardboard casket that will be used for his cremation. You can also decorate the casket beforehand as a ritual. It can be a cathartic experience to help bring acceptance in lieu of a proper funeral. With my mother’s home funeral, everyone came and hung out at her house. They were able to say goodbye. We were able to say goodbye. We don’t have any of that with my dad. Rituals are important. Human connection is integral for our humanity. So make sure you create some sort of ritual whatever that may be.
I hope that you will never have to experience this. But unfortunately many of us will. If you have had someone you love die from Covid-19 and are willing to share your experience, I invite you to write it in the comments section below. The more we share, the more we learn and grow from this experience.
Stay safe. Stay healthy everyone.
Please wear your masks. Keep physically distanced from others. It is a small price to pay for a life.
Risa, a certified integrative nutritional health coach, is the Founder and co-CEO of Modern Aging. She is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker and TV producer/director.
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