Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘The empty house felt both familiar and alien. I was overcome with grief.’ The long goodbye: Burying my dad during COVID-19


When my 74-year-old dad died in February 2020, the pandemic was starting to make its deadly path across the globe. In a world ravaged by COVID-19, I had no idea that it would take more than two years to say my final goodbye.

Here is a diary of the events that unfolded:

November 2019

On our weekly Skype session, which was marked as usual by my father chatting with the grandkids before he and I reverted to discussing soccer, he mentioned that he did not want me to be alarmed when we saw him at Christmas, but he had lost a great deal of weight quite rapidly. He wasn’t feeling sick, he said, but it was a worry.

Christmas 2019

I was shocked at my dad’s appearance. He said he had no appetite. We could not prevail upon him to eat. We begged him to seek medical help and he finally agreed to do so.

January 2020

I traveled back to the U.K. for a week, ferrying my dad to and from medical tests. During that week I’d aimed to take him out for a drink, but he would not leave the house except for doctor appointments.

Feb. 24, 2020

I was at my office in midtown Manhattan, thinking about grabbing lunch, when my cellphone rang. Glancing down, I was surprised by the caller ID, which indicated that my dad, who lived in Liverpool, England, was calling me on his cellphone. Strange, I thought. My dad, a creature of habit, always called me on his landline.

I’d spoken to Dad just the day before and was due to travel back to Liverpool in a few days to check up on him and take him to the doctor.

“‘The empty house felt both familiar and alien. I was overcome with grief. I walked around. There were unwashed teacups here and there and the previous day’s newspapers.’”

I walked around. There were unwashed teacups here and there and the previous day’s newspapers. I could see scuff marks on the floor left by police and paramedic boots. On the dining table was a poem I’d written when I was 9 or 10, titled “My Home” — it was about the house and my parents. I had long forgotten about the poem, but it had obviously been important to my dad. Perhaps sensing that he was nearing the end, did he leave it for me to find?

Upstairs, in his bedroom, there was some discarded packaging from a piece of paramedic gear.

My uncle had given me the number for the hospital’s Bereavement Centre. With a lump in my throat, I made an appointment to see my dad’s remains that afternoon. When I got there, a member of staff brought me a bottle of water and sat with me for a moment before I saw him. She was calm and kind.

Feb. 26 to March 5, 2020

A letter arrived containing the results of my dad’s recent medical tests. Nothing concerning had been found.

In the days that followed, I used funeral planning as a coping mechanism. Many years earlier, my dad had written a letter explaining what he wanted in the event of his death. From his chosen funeral director and stonemason to the hymns in his requiem mass, it was all there.

The morning after returning to the U.K., I took a short walk in the February chill to the funeral director’s office and went through the grimly banal process of picking out a coffin and tentatively arranging his funeral, with the date to be set once we had the death certificate.

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