My nan grew up on a farm in the Black Country during the war. In her youth, she was part of a dance troupe. She performed on stage with Arthur Askey, and was skilled in tap dancing, ballet and acrobatics. I have wonderful memories of her: as a kid, I remember standing in her kitchen looking up at her while we baked cakes, my nan tutting and smiling, as I cheekily stole chocolate icing.
Over her life, she worked for the NHS as a clerk and administrator. I’m not exaggerating when I say she never said a bad word about anybody. Her kindness knew no bounds: when she finished her dialysis for kidney failure some years ago, she would go and sit with patients who were alone during their own treatment. During the night, she would climb out of her own bed to hold the hands of patients who were crying out in severe pain.
It feels particularly cruel, then, that we were robbed of holding hers in the final months, weeks, days and hours of her wonderful life. The pandemic defined everything about that last year: how my nan lived, and how she died. As for many others, this month marks a year since she and my grandad, both in their late 80s, began shielding due to the pandemic. The last time I saw her in person was more than a year ago – and the last time my mom was able to visit her was before the second lockdown in the autumn.
Having dementia, she did not understand why her daughter wore a mask and wouldn’t touch her. She did not understand why her friends would stand and wave at the bottom of the drive instead of coming in. Unsurprisingly, this took its toll – she became more withdrawn and we watched her decline over FaceTime as she struggled to recognise us.
In January, one of the things we’d always feared happened: she had a fall and had to be taken into hospital. Thankfully, she had already had her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine – but because of Covid, she wasn’t allowed visitors.
Away from her husband of 65 years, her home and the cats she adored, she lay alone in a hospital bed – surrounded by people she didn’t know, who were covered in PPE she did not understand, with no one to hold her hand. We were told that she had fractured her skull, and she had been given a do-not-resuscitate order due to her frailty.
We FaceTimed nan multiple times a day but as her dementia worsened, eventually she could not communicate or recognise us. I witnessed my mom’s heartbreak, as we saw my nan on the screen, looking around the hospital room, terrified, crying out.
The hospital discharged my nan back home with a palliative care package at the same time my mom finally got her own vaccine appointment – she is clinically extremely vulnerable, and has also been shielding for a year. After she received her first dose of the vaccine, mom said to me anxiously: “Shall we go straight to see nanny? Before she dies?” But with great sadness, I had to remind her that it still wasn’t possible as she wouldn’t have any immunity yet.
After a few days, my nan’s dementia developed to a stage where she stopped eating and stopped drinking. The district nurses let us know she didn’t have long left. It quickly became apparent my mom wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to her mother in person. My grandad, alone, sat by her side – after 65 years of marriage. My mom, constantly on FaceTime, told nan how much she loved her as she slept, kissing the phone screen as my grandad held it to my nan’s cheek.
One evening my grandad, sobbing – and coughing, as he’d contracted Covid during the process of my nan being discharged and the nurses coming in – called on FaceTime to tell us she’d passed. We saw her on the screen, lying peacefully in the home she loved. I called the undertakers to come and collect her. Everything was done at distance, and felt antithetical to what being human is.
Covid continued to define what happened next. My grandad had the Pfizer vaccine in December, so his experience of Covid has not been severe – but he’s still needed medication. And the virus has cruelly robbed him of any visitors until he’s recovered – meaning no one has been able to call into him since my nan died.
The strains caused by the pandemic are showing on all parts of the system, with delays and difficulties everywhere. When we contacted the register office, we were told they were overwhelmed and that getting the death certificate would take longer than usual. The crematorium told us that the earliest available date was in five weeks’ time. When we tried to get the hospital bed she passed away in collected from the house, so my grandad didn’t have to see it every day, they told us there was a two-week wait.
When it comes to a funeral, numbers are capped, masks are mandatory, of course, and singing is not allowed.
You don’t get any of these details in the daily death figures, or the daily case numbers. This sort of suffering cannot be measured by any metric. But, what is painfully clear, is that in so many ways my family has been a casualty of Covid. Kept apart, kept alone – while the virus invades absolutely every aspect of life.
So, while my nan didn’t die of Covid, it defined everything about her passing. Like my whole family, I was robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye. There are surely many families who have been impacted like us. I just pray that it will be safe to lift restrictions soon so many more do not have to suffer as we have.