Sonja Mackenzie: Grief in a Pandemic

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In the new normal, even grief needs new rituals. Sonja Mackenzie has this Perspective.

I remember the day he died as if it were yesterday.

“He’s all right. He’s peaceful now.” The nurse in charge of the ward where my father lay dying in England closed our final conversation.

All right meant my father was dying; peaceful meant he was sedated. This was what I was supposed to hope for, just four days after his hospitalization with COVID-19. A peaceful death.

The nurse arranged for a final goodbye using a donated iPad. I could see her youthful face, a ray of life beneath the shield that protected her from my father. She wore a white translucent robe, a thin veil keeping her in this world while ensuring that dad’s passage to what lay beyond was humane. The comfort she offered to him and to me put her in the proximity of this deadly virus.


By the time we said goodbye, my father was preverbal, eyes sunken and searching. His eyes lifted gently as I spoke, my voice shaking through the phone. “I love you, Dad.”

It had come so quickly, this window onto our life together. He had given me the power of words, and now was the time to use them.

Pandemic death is particularly cruel. It preys on the vulnerable. But what happens when death comes?

The daily acts of service by our nurses and doctors, janitors and funeral staff change the lives of those of us left behind even as they support dignity for our dying and dead.

Our rituals of grief are no more. We must feel the cut-me-to-the-core pain of grieving in isolation. We see masked coffin-bearers over video live stream funerals. We yearn for human comfort. Yet we know too well the excruciating cost of lifting distance too early.

Science now knows enough to protect people like my father from coronavirus. Wear your mask. Wash your hands often. Practice physical distancing. I wish I didn’t know the difference it could make, but I do. It’s too late for my dad, but not too late for so many more.

With a Perspective, I’m Sonja Mackenzie.

Sonja Mackenzie is associate professor of public health at Santa Clara University. She lives in Berkeley.