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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

How do we mourn in the time of pandemic?

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 7/8/20

I don’t have to repeat what so many have already said, “These are weird and interesting times,” but I just did. The litany of new developments in the past few weeks is …

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How do we mourn in the time of pandemic?

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I don’t have to repeat what so many have already said, “These are weird and interesting times,” but I just did. The litany of new developments in the past few weeks is mind-boggling, but that isn’t news to anyone either. Everyone I know remarks about the unbelievable headlines we are bombarded with these days.
COVID-19 statistics are climbing again after plenty of talk that “summer would be better.” After “sheltering in place” for three disconcerting months, my hopes have been dashed to reunite with family for a traditional Fourth of July picnic. Or rehiring my grandson to lend me a valued hand on cabin improvements that we started last summer. Or even hosting a small gathering of friends on our outdoor deck for BBQ and a beer on a beautiful Minnesota night. As is true for a lot of us, none of these or anything like them have happened for twelve-plus long weeks!
Never would I have anticipated a test to my marriage as comprehensive and strenuous as this one. We’re not a couple unaccustomed to “ups and downs”. I’m convinced any two people who have shared life this close for this long a time have weathered much. But to rely this much on each other for so many needs and desires which, prior to the pandemic, were successfully shared among the willing involvement of family and friends has been comparable to very few things imaginable. My mind is groping... Retreat to a nuclear bomb shelter like those I feared as a young child in the midst of a major Cold War? A long, long bout of chicken pox making the rounds in a family with ten kids? Missing your military GI children, shipped overseas to a war zone for an indefinite period of time with no way to know if they are alive for sometimes weeks or months? As crazy, painful and worrisome as those scenarios might have been, this one is definitely a curveball. And it’s not over!
Instead of things looking better with time, increases in the number of cases and deaths are spiking all across our country. We are continuing to learn about how this virus behaves differently from those we’ve encountered in previous epidemics. And so, predictions have proven both correct and incorrect at times, strategies adopted have both “worked” to contain or reduce the spread and also backfired. We began relaxing restrictions with hopeful anticipation only to see it prove to be a terrible mistake, calling into question if our children will be returning to school in the fall to resume some level of normalcy with their education. In short, our future is unknown, and what we imagine looks very uncertain and borders at times on “bleak.” A lot of people are saying, “I just want my life back!” but there’s no assurance of if or when.
Often, through this, I have realized how “on the periphery” of the pandemic and its full impact we happen to be here in the Northland. It’s especially true when I phone my son in the Twin Cities. I don’t underestimate my good fortune to be situated right here in rural Cook. But I experienced my first rude awakening last week.
After a very short episode with unexpected and critical physical decline, I lost a very dear friend to medical circumstances with an unknown cause. In her ten days of ICU care at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis, having received every possible test to diagnose the source of the issues, no identifiable cause or explanation could be determined. She had tested negative for the coronavirus but the science tells us that not all tests are 100-percent accurate. So that big question lingers for me despite it not being named on her death certificate.
I received a call last week from her spouse that, per her wishes, he would hold a very small gathering of her closest friends to remember her and spread her ashes in their woods. He asked me to attend. Up to that point, I had declined every offer to gather socially just to be careful not to bring the virus home, putting my spouse at higher risk of infection. But this was Stephanie, a person intrinsic to my development as a young adult, an active participant in supporting me as a young mother, working with me every day for over five years in the cleaning business we had created, and even nudging me to attend college after years of believing I wasn’t “college material.” In short, she had greatly improved and even changed the course of my life in more ways than one. I had a lot of stories I could share. And then there was Greg.… struggling alone through his grief, choosing to risk his own physical security to assure his emotional and psychological survival as he mourned his enormous loss. I knew I had to accept the risk and say “yes” to this out-of-the-ordinary invitation.
Twelve were invited. Twelve showed up. Twelve shared stories. Twelve took little handmade wooden boxes, each with a portion of our beloved friend’s remains and followed Greg on that twenty-minute walk through their gorgeous wooded property, continuing our remembrances as we discovered the “perfect places” to leave her in peace and go back to nature.
The 90-minute drive home was a difficult one, the day necessary and good. To be among loved ones again. To share stories, laughter and tears together, in community. To give and receive on a deeper level with kindred spirits. To fulfill our human rites of passage and send a good and dear person on her way. Maybe a little more vivid and more meaningful in this time of pandemic.

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