Losing During a Time of Loss

Ellis Wilson’s “Funeral Procession”

In 2020, I gained two ancestors. First, Grandma Van. She was 78 years old, light-skinned with an extensive and elegant wig collection. We both like our hair covered and cute. Grandma towered over me, which is no great accomplishment since I am not known for my height, but this was more than physical. Grandma Van always seemed observant and removed, like a mountain or tree—any being with deep roots that witnesses life’s fitful grandeur and keeps its own counsel about it.

Grandma and I were not as close as I wanted us to be. As a kid, my fear of spankings made me wary of most grownups, her included. She, like most adults I knew at the time, was interested in the complex relationships of people her own age rather than the perplexing, and often dull, world of children.

When the growth of her cancer cells outpaced my grandfather’s ability to care for her, Grandma Van spent a brief stint in a hospice facility. Paid for by her insurer for a while, it was too expensive for my mom and her siblings as a long-term solution. Eventually, my uncle moved her and my mother into his house. My mother would be the primary caregiver.

All this unfolded during a pandemic with a special knack for exacerbating loss in Black communities. More than 30,536 Black people died from COVID-19 in 2020. As stats for cases and deaths grew, COVID’s impact on my friends and family revealed the human impact behind the numbers. Every few weeks a phone call or text

We were sick in February and it wasn’t the flu – did we get it already? … My brother’s been on a ventilator for over a week now. Prayers welcome. … My father died from complications from COVID – can I stay at your place when I come to town for the funeral?

Though “1 in 3 Black Americans know someone personally who has died of COVID-19,” I’ve only known those who have been sick and recovered. While many struggle with the grief of losing a partner or parent, grandparent or cousin, community elder or friend, many others and I sit behind locked doors wrestling with the anxiety of COVID’s closeness, and doing what many do when their governments fail to protect them: weigh the risks of every excursion, silently pray that me, mine and as many others as possible are spared. 

I wondered about who would be spared, as my parents traveled through Pennsylvania where the number of cases were rising. My mother has her own medical issues, including comorbidities for the coronavirus. Still she traveled. She was worried about her mother. I understood, since I was also worried about mine.

I called her more than I usually do, always with the same conversation: “Are you getting enough rest? … Wearing your mask? … Staying inside? … How is grandma?   … What did the nurse say? … The doctor? … It is so good that you are there.”

After four weeks of caregiving, my mom planned to go back home to my dad and brother, grab a little sleep in her own bed before coming back for a longer stint. When she told the nurse, the woman shook her head. “You should stay; there’s not long left.”

My mom stayed. When my grandma breathed her last, my mom was there, holding her hand.

Mom and her siblings went through the papers, talked to the funeral home, learned how much it would cost for a service, a casket, for the funeral home to keep and then prepare the body. Lay the body to rest. Like everything, the siblings divided up the cost, between themselves and then between their own children. The aunts, uncles and cousins dipped into rainy day funds, decided which bills could wait, called in favors and money owed to make sure grandma got a proper burial.

I masked up and rented a car to drive the eight hours from Chicago to Memphis with my 12-year-old son. It felt safer than the train we usually take, safer than flying, but still a risk.

The funeral was on a Tuesday at 10:30 am.

The last funeral I went to was for my younger cousin who died in a motorcycle accident in 2016. I took an overnight flight to Virginia for the service. I arrived at midnight. Woke up at 6 am to make the three-hour drive home. Got dressed at my parents’ house and rode with them to the service. Wept at the funeral, visited and laughed at the repast, took a 6 am flight back to Chicago the next day in time to get my son to school and myself to work, both on time.

It is hard for me to take time off of work. As a Black woman in the US, the paradox of both my essentialness and expendability are clear to me.

This is true for many Black women. The deep, structural inequalities of this country have been exacerbated by the pandemic, forcing Black women in particular, to face impossible choices—deciding between our health and our livelihoods. Overwhelmingly, we have lost jobs or hours because of COVID, increasing our worries about being able to pay for basic necessities like rent, groceries and/or child care. Black workers, more likely to be frontline, essential workers, are more vulnerable to exploitation by employers who offer no paid sick leave or PPE.

I am lucky to have work I can do from home, but luck is fickle, and I am not one to push it. I cancelled the calls I could and steeled myself for the calls I would take on the day my grandmother was buried, while I was too far away to take care of my mother in her grief.

My sister and I dressed for the funeral in her home and then sat on her queen-sized bed, a blue, patterned quilt pulled across the surface. My son leaned into my arm, the 8-month old child my sister fosters squirmed in her lap, all of us faced the 14” screen of her laptop. I squinted and leaned closer, checking for mask violators.

There is one in the back. A woman holding a baby who seems so new. Peering into the baby’s face, the woman tugs the pink, fleecy blanket closer to the child’s chin, even as the pale, blue, disposable mask the woman wears dangles beneath her nose. I want her to pull it up. My mother is in that room. My dad. My aunts and uncles. My Pop Pop. “Be careful!” I want to yell at her. “Hasn’t this year taught you how easily the world can break?

But I don’t. We are separated by polarized glass and thousands of miles, so I grumble to my sister and hope, hope, hope, instead, everyone is spared.

People come up to the mic sharing memories of Deaconess Van or their sweet friend, and an old craving washed over me. Tears spilled down my cheeks; this new loss and a familiar longing squeezed my chest. I wanted a more intimate connection with a woman now gone.

Over the next few weeks, my mother slept and cried, and I waited. Losing during a time of loss complicates grief, an already tangled emotion. My mother’s every cough, sneeze or sniffle seemed like the waning chirp of a canary deep in the belly of a mine. But after 14 days she was clear—no symptoms, no COVID.

Right before Christmas, my great aunt Doretha joined her little sister, Van, on the other side. My mom would go to Aunt Doretha’s house when Grandma Van’s temper got too violent. “She was my second mother,” my mom used to say about Aunt Doretha when we would visit as kids. After her funeral, a number of COVID cases popped up, my aunt and little cousin among the number who tested positive. We are hoping for their health, hoping they are spared, hoping against hope in this protracted moment of many losses.

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