A Personal Account: Covid-19 Takes Family Member’s Life

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”—John Donne in a sermon in 1642

An extended family member died this week of Covid-19. I do not write this so that you will extend condolences to me on my loss. The condolences belong to his wife, his sons and daughters and his grandchildren. 

Rather, I am writing this to express my feelings about the deaths, the unnecessary deaths, of so many of my fellows. Between the time my family member died and the time I finish writing this, at least 3000 more Americans will have died of Covid-19. 

A loss of such magnitude cannot belong to me except in Donne’s sense: That “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Donne wasn’t writing of personal loss, the kind that is so immediate that the news of it takes you by the throat and brings you to your knees the moment you hear it. 

He was writing about a sense of kinship, community, and empathy. He was writing about the need to understand that there, but for the grace of God, go I. He was writing about that knowledge that each person that falls is truly one of us; that person was loved, as you are; that person’s life bore the fruit of their work, as yours does; that person touched people every day in ways they could not know, as yours does. 

We know, or we should know, that when death comes, whether it is by horrific accident or quietly in old age; whether it is announced on the front pages of a newspaper or tucked away in a few sparse lines in the back, that here was a whole life. Here was another human whose path took them from birth to the grave. It is precisely the path you are walking. 

Many of us in our American culture find talk of death in bad taste. Our minds shy away from what frightens us. If we think of it, even briefly, we hope that it will be quick and painless. The reality is otherwise. Covid-19 has now surpassed cancer and heart disease as the leading cause of death in our nation. If you have ever watched as someone you love dies by inches every day, from cancer, you know the reality of slow and painful death. 

Covid-19 is even less kind. I was with my parents daily as they lay dying of cancer. I could take their hands, we could speak, I could ease their fear and pain with my presence. I could ease my own. 

Covid-19 steals that from its victims, both those who die and those who would comfort them. It’s a death of machines and tubes and drowning in your own fluids in the presence of people who are kind, but exhausted. They’ve seen so much of it. 

They are the people who have tried so hard and cared so much. They’ve endangered themselves and their families to be with your loved one. It’s their job, it’s their calling, and it has become their life. They don’t have the luxury of wondering what death is like for thousands. They see it every day now. They try to be there since loved ones can’t. 

I see these frontline workers on television trying to explain all that they are feeling to some who are unwilling to listen. They speak of exhaustion, their sadness, their fear, of being asked to go beyond their very human limits. They speak of those they care for who can’t be with family. 

Are you listening? Will you only listen once it is someone you know? I see articles in magazines and newspapers by people who say, I didn’t believe in the virus, I didn’t take it seriously, I didn’t realize how bad it could be, I never dreamed that just being with my friends or my family could bring me such dire consequences. I didn’t believe it could happen to me, to my mother, my father, my child. 

We can help to make this better. Will you not do the smallest thing for your family, for your community, for yourself? Will you stop the juvenile posturing and wear a mask for someone whose life has as much value as your own, who is on the same path? Will you forgo a Christmas gathering this year so that next Christmas can be doubly joyous? Will you get a vaccination when it becomes available? Will you do it for someone who loves football, who laughs at old movies, who sings and dances badly, a complete stranger who, in truth, is no stranger at all?

Again, Donne knew and said it best. He had heard the church bells ringing for the deaths of someone’s loved ones so many times and he warned you. “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

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