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Hay: We can’t let the pandemic put grief on hold

‘I have learned the difference between fear and hope is focus’
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we grieve. (File photo)

It started as a normal Wednesday laying out the paper, but all turning points begin as a normal day.

I am no stranger to grief — I knew to sit down after my sister called and asked if anybody had talked to me yet. When a call starts like that I know I am not going to be the same person when I hang up. She had to tell me my brother was in bad shape and if I didn’t get home I would never see him again.

I was afraid to hang up the phone and be a thousand kilometres away from my family — distance and loss create a cruel sense of helplessness and pain thrives when it is alone; it nests inside a person and pokes around until it finds what breaks you and sometimes the only way to scare it off is a hug from a loved one.

There was a question of whether I should fly or wait until Christmas, but the idea of my mother and sisters dealing with the pain of loss without me was impossible for me to accept.

I got on a flight to Alberta the next day, but when I got there my brother could only breathe on life support. As our phones vibrated with messages asking if he would be OK, we were discussing whether he would want us to donate his organs — he always wanted to help people in life.

I didn’t see him in the hospital, by choice. I wanted to hold on to the memories I had from when he was present. I have had memories of loved ones shadowed by final moments in a hospital bed before. After you have made your final memory, it is hard to call upon the countless ones that came before.

I spent nearly three weeks in Alberta and the whole time, COVID-19 dominated headlines as the new variant caused a spike in cases and a new wave of uncertainty.

We tried to celebrate Christmas as pain waited for each of us to be alone again. We sat in silence around the kitchen table feeling the weight of loss together and opened his already-wrapped gifts under the lit tree.

We didn’t have a funeral when I was there because our little town in the foothills was in the grips of COVID. This was the second time during the pandemic I have lost a loved one, both unrelated to the virus, and was unable to go through the traditional process of grieving with my family. Instead, I made my way back to work, dealing with cancelled and delayed flights without knowing when I will get back.

Now I am back on the Island trying to focus on the paper as COVID-19 continues dominating the headlines.

My mind wanders back across the mountains and prairies to fixate on the people who are there grieving without me. We have used the word isolation to describe many aspects of the pandemic, but this is new to me.

Grief unrelated to COVID-19 feels isolating when social media and public conversation are dominated by a sense of universal dread over new regulations, high case counts and rising hospitalizations.

We decided to have a funeral later when the COVID situation is not so bad, but I don’t know if I will be able to get home for it.

We could have had a funeral with about 20 people, but we didn’t want to turn grieving friends away. When an 18-year-old dies in a small town, it shakes the community to the core. The pandemic has forced me to sit with my grief face-to-face. It can’t be set aside until gathering restrictions are loosened.

We are living in a time full of unity and division over common stress. People are divided by opinions and united by shared experience — but it is important to remember life goes on, COVID or not.

Daily case counts and untrustworthy politicians may create a sense of doom, but there’s so much more to life than the news. It is well known the pandemic has dealt a blow to collective mental health, but COVID is not all there is when it comes to people’s struggles.

I know fear is for what is yet to be lost, but fear and hope are flip sides of the same feeling. The hope is for what is yet to be gained.

Every turning point begins as a regular day. I didn’t know that Wednesday morning would change my life, but I also don’t know when a day will hold a warm memory that will bring me comfort in my darkest hours.

I have learned the difference between fear and hope is focus — so I will focus on holding my loved ones close and making memories powerful enough to never be shadowed by a final goodbye.

Tyler Hay is the editor of the Ladysmith Chronicle.

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