The nurse caught Coronavirus at work. She got a false-negative test result the first time and celebrated that she did not need to think of death and dying. But when the cold worsened, she got tested again and self-isolated as a precaution.
It was, however, too late. Her mother died a week later, was posthumously diagnosed with Covid-19, and her family talked to the undertakers through a glass screen during the funeral.
The nurse dreaded catching Coronavirus daily. She dreaded taking it home to her family. She dreaded pulling them into her fear-drenched days, putting them through the anxiety of a grim battle that could go either way.
Every day, the nurse wore her PPE faithfully, even after developing pressure sores from ill-fitting items. She used a particulate filter respirator and wore a face shield over it just in case. She had wanted to turn her face away from her patients to minimize chances of exposure, but they were already fearful and lonely, so she silenced her fears to reassure them.
The nurse washed and rewashed her hands until they cracked and bled from the soap and a thousand alcohol rubs. Her gloves stuck to these cracks, making taking them off absolute agony. Still, safety was more important than comfort, and on she gloved.
The nurse was careful and took every precaution, but these proved inadequate against an invisible enemy small enough to hide anywhere.
Amidst all this, the nurse endured the psychological strain caused by the unexpected cognitive load which came with working through a pandemic. While others scrambled for toilet paper rolls until the shelves were bare, she dove for free spaces out of their way in case there was Coronavirus perched somewhere on her. And when she passed anyone, she would purse her lips and hold her breath under her mask, just in case.
It is, after all, the creed of their calling as healthcare workers to preserve life and health at all costs.
The nurse was hailed as a frontline worker, courageously turning up. But she was a fear-filled mess shaking in her scrubs, praying incessantly under her breath. Still, she showed up, not because of courage but because someone had to. The nurse was that someone who, in the process of turning up, sacrificed her mother.
Every day, she had played hide and seek with a deadly biological murder weapon in hopes she could outwit it. It won.
The nurse did not think of death. She could not think of death and face Coronavirus patients every day. It was not denial but self-preservation. And even so, Coronavirus death came to her home. And to her heart. And to her thoughts. Now, she mostly thinks of the helplessness of death and dying.
Eight months after her mother passed away, the nurse believed that her grief was mellowing. It was, in reality. That is until the distressing images of the Indian Covid-19 crisis set it off again.
Watching the desperation at the heart of India’s Covid-19 storm thrust her back into a dark hole of continuous replays, what-ifs, guilt, GUILT.
The nurse wishes to lay her head on a friend’s lap and cry the chaos of her raging thoughts into calm. But it is an empty longing because her friends think she moved on. Besides, it is awkward for many young adults to talk about death or grief. And so, the charade of a happy life continues through the usual exaggerations and cute emojis of social media interactions.
But she is alone, blaming herself.
Her pain fixates the nurse on the words of a young Indian man mourning his mother when he said: “The smoke (from the chimney of an electric crematorium) represents my mother.” (BBC News)
His statement conjures a feeling of transiency, intangibleness, and the helplessness that commandeers your existence as you watch the one who nurtured you, who would be comforting you now, go up in smoke. It is as if the nurse knows how the man feels. Momentarily, their shared desolation connects them, easing her aloneness without abating her feelings of guilt.
The nurse has tried to silence the guilt so that she can grieve her loss. She wants the freedom to summon some memories, to see her mother alive, not dying. Instead, her cycle of grief and guilt continues in the one question she wishes to forget: ‘What if I hadn’t gone to work the day I contracted Coronavirus?’
On the day her mother died, the Premier announced the daily death toll as usual: “A woman in her sixties has died of the novel Coronavirus.” The end.
The Premier had quickly proceeded to reassure the masses that the spread of Coronavirus would soon be contained. After all, it was just another death among many deaths, and it should be fortunate for her mother, an everyday woman, to have her death acknowledged by the Premier.
‘That woman in her sixties was my mother. That woman in her sixties was my mother! That WOMAN IN HER SIXTIES WAS MY MOTHER!!!’ The nurse had stared numbly at the screen as the Premier’s words faded into din and noise in the distance.
As a nurse, she must reassure strangers at their most vulnerable. And yet, she is engulfed by a sense of failure because mother died alone, inaccessible, out of view. She had become a healer at death, watching helplessly through tear-smudged screens, reaching out only for her hand to be pushed back by the clear glass shield.
She had not reached out to say goodbye. She wanted to explain, to ask for forgiveness. She imagined that her wrong would be absolved in a gentle look powerful enough to hush the guilt searing on her conscience. But the cold, hard glass shield against her outstretched hand was the only reply she received.
The nurse longs for warmth. She wants her soul to feel like the palms of her hands cupping her coffee mug.
She wants a quiet space within her chaotic mind where she can sit with her mother as they did on the patio on Saturday mornings after breakfast. A sacred spot with only herself and her mum — to think of, to love on, to cradle each memory with her emotions until the aching emptiness inside of her has sprinkles of hope.
Hope. Hope seems a lonely, temporal thought soon to be absorbed by guilt and longing.
Two weeks after the funeral, the nurse started grief therapy in search of hope. Her therapist said that grief wasn’t an enemy to be defeated or an obstacle to jump over. It was an unpleasant reality that would gradually change her, depending on how she responded to it. How was the therapist to predict that a Covid-19 crisis in India would rip her client apart all over again?
The nurse thinks of India, her mind wandering through their overcrowded Covid-19 wards. Immersed in the fear and the courage of the healthcare workers there, she hears the public chorus lauding their heroism afresh. So, they are.
Some of them are, however, like her, shattered veterans following orders to remain in combat. Their label of heroism feels to her like an invisibility shield.
Like her Indian counterparts, she continues to honor her badge of heroism by showing up to the hospital every shift. Her grief stays with her, but no one notices. They are not supposed to because she is there to care for them, not the other way round.
As she dispenses care and reassurance to her trusting patients, the nurse contemplates the sad irony of life as a healthcare worker — patching others up while life rips you apart.
‘Perhaps when life has ripped me enough for me to mend well, it will embark on piecing me together’, she muses.
In the meantime, the nurse sees herself in the faces of the people of India. Like them, she is trying to survive the day without giving in to despair, holding on in the hope that one day their hearts will beat with pleasure, not fear.
First published here
2 thoughts on “A Moment Inside Coronavirus Grief: Guilt, Courage, and Hope”
Nini, this is so beautifully written. You transport the reader into the head and heart of the subject. Our front line workers, the modern day heros, are more than that: they are human beings experiencing extreme loss and stress and still showing up for the rest of us. Thank you for this story.
This is a very moving post. We hear constantly about the massive picture, the many scenarios and the moments of crisis. But seldom do we receive an intimate account of the life of the frontline healthcare worker. They truly stand every moment of their working days on the critical line between life and death. An individual that has been trained to negotiate two absolute extremes and conditions. They are the heros/heroines of the world today. And so few of them receive relief, comfort or joy. I appreciate your spotlight and giving a nurse a stage so that we can glimpse upon her performance of real life as she lives it today. They say that all is fair in love and war. This virus is a war. And nothing is fair about it.