Dear Grief, during a time of COVID-19,
It’s been now more than a month since my brother died. My family and I have been struggling with losing our loved ones. The paused grieving process that so many people are experiencing as we wait for our families’ bodies to move out of storage freezers and into those spaces where we can find some sliver of solace. Like many others, I want to be able to do something that COVID-19 has forced us to wait for now or give up altogether.
My brother Eduardo Arturo was 34. He was Native American and Mexican. Two Spirits, and a person with a disability. He had been living with AIDS for over a decade. Our family would ask him to buy us a lottery ticket whenever we saw him because we all thought he was such a lucky person. When he developed AIDS, he had had several opportunistic severe illnesses that needed significant hospitalization and, on several occasions, life support. He would always recover, come out of the hospital filled with hope for the future.
The COVID-19 epidemic changed everything for all, especially for disabled folks who are at high risk of contracting and having the worst health outcomes, like my brother. In the first weeks of the state lockdown, I saw how people like my brother, in many ways, were left to fend for themselves. Many could not go to the store to buy food, either, because of the large shortages that came with people hoarding supplies. Others went without food because of the lack of public transportation and the limitations of waiting in line and carrying needed supplies back home. Unable to get necessary medical services, people like my brother began developing worse medical conditions. The clock started running out faster.
Here in Los Angeles, going to get services at doctors was a life risk activity for many. That is, if doctors were even available. Hospital visits became a type of COVID-19 roulette game because of the high exposure rate. Some hospitals would quickly discharge high-risk patients, and in some cases, they just started turning ambulances away. For those who would be admitted, the constant anxiety of exposure was real. It compounded, even more, the isolation that many hospital patients are experiencing because hospitals are not allowing visitors or support staff for disabled people, which forces so many to leave the hospital before they can get the necessary medical care they needed.
I saw my brother’s health go down quickly. In the first 8 months since the pandemic began, he had to go into the hospital over 7 times. Each time for complications that were more serious than the one before. He was terrified of going into the hospital, always waiting until the last minute before asking us to call 911. We have had several family members die alone of COVID-19 in the hospital, and for him, this was a real possibility.
To help with his medical needs, my family and I created a hospital at our home. I turned my bedroom into his care space to monitor him and make him comfortable. Because of the shortage of home nurses, I quickly had to learn to do his IV’s, CPR, and other things. I monitored the long list of medications needed to help him manage his AIDS and the many side effects.
I learned to be patient, not just with him but with myself. I had to learn to control my expressions so that he would not see the fear in my face when I would see how much his health was deteriorating. I had to learn to listen and just be there when he was not feeling well and was angry. I started writing, recording, and tapping all sorts of conversations with him because I knew he was running out of time.
Often when I would be taking a shower, I would just break out in tears. I was constantly checking on him to make sure that he was breathing. And my dreams were filled with constant anxiety. I would wake up feeling more tired than the day before. I had to seek help. I felt like my family was dying around me, and I could not protect them. I felt like my family and I were left all to ourselves to care for him. The isolation from the pandemic meant we were all together as this was happening, and we could not have others with us for support.
Now that my brother has moved on. I feel I am stuck in the space of grief, and it feels like madness. I tried asking for therapy help from my local department of mental health, but they could not help since they are in pandemic mode and there is a staff shortage.
I was able to get some help from my local Native American community clinic, which was able to find a therapy student that could offer me support. And once a week, I would find someplace for me in the house for one hour and check in on how I was doing.
COVID-19 has made folks skip birthdays, weddings, funerals. It’s something that we have had to give up for right now. I am deciding to hold on to my brother’s memory, not forget what has happened in this once in one hundred pandemic. For my family and me, grief has a place, a voice, and a right. The nights are confronted with warm stories about my brother. We go through pictures and memories that tell us irrefutable who he was for each of us- son, a brother, an uncle. When the ashes of his body come home when it’s all safe for all of us to come together again and remember those whom we lost in this pandemic. I will honor what he taught me in his final days and strive to be humble, compassionate, and grateful. And to buy one more lottery ticket, because that is hope.
Héctor M. Ramirez