Day 8 - March 20, 2020
This is the last picture I have of my mother. She died alone in a nursing home in Jamaica, Queens two days later due to complications from COVID-19.
A ban on visitors at New York nursing homes went into effect on March 12, 2020. My mother began developing COVID symptoms on March 13th. Between her dementia and the virus, she slept most days and was deeply confused when awake. I couldn’t visit her – no in-person contact. She couldn’t speak to me – no possibility of a phone call. In this ominous situation, Zoom offered me and my family a way to be with my mother in her last days.
I am truly grateful for the opportunity Zoom gave me to see my mother again when I thought I never would. Yet, my grief lingers. While grief is known to linger, the surreal quality of my mother’s death mediated through Zoom coupled with the lack of wake and funeral has prolonged the loss.
The circumstances surrounding my mother’s death are not unique. Selman et al. have studied experiences like mine via tweets of bereaved family and friends of COVID-19 victims. The absence of mourning rituals, goodbyes mediated by technology that is appreciated but inadequate, people dying alone at hospitals, hospices and nursing homes without family and friends present, and the sense of “disrupted bereavement” this creates – these are all part of the COVID-19 pandemic experience (1272).
But is there something about the affective nature of death and the limitations of mediating grief through video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom that adds to this challenging experience?
Day 1 - March 13. 2020
My siblings and I were Zoom novices but excited about the prospect of seeing our mother.
“Mom, can you hear me?”
“Mom, it’s me, Susan.”
Statements like this gave way to questions about how she was.
“Mom you look pretty good, how do you feel?”
Then, the slow realization that my mother had no idea what video-conferencing was nor was she about to figure it out in the throes of COVID-19 and dementia.
“Do you think she knows it’s us?”
“Mom, can you open your eyes - it’s us, your kids?”
“Does she think we’re a TV show?”
As a video-conferencing platform, Zoom’s interface is preset to maximize the visual display of speaking participants. Unless changed, the screen can become a blur of quick cuts between participants vying for a chance to talk.
Frantically trying to talk to our mother and assess how ill she was, this first day the screen was a postmodern nightmare of worried faces and a cacophony of voices. My mother stared blankly at us. Her fatigue and confusion palpable; she closed her eyes. I pinned my mother’s screen and we fell silent. The call ended with a deep sense of sorrow and despair. Never having seen Zoom before, did my mom think this was a hallucination? Images of us blurring together, talking over each other, yet not one of us sitting on her bedside, how could my mother make sense of this?
The intensity of my desire to comfort my mother could not be translated through Zoom. Rather, it came across as frantic images calling to her like a bad 90s commercial. In her frail state, the only response she could give was to tune us out as a way to find calmness. This was the exact opposite I hoped for.
Day 3 - March 15, 2020
Slowly, my siblings and I found ways to use Zoom more effectively. Each day one of us would moderate the call, giving everyone a few minutes to talk directly to mom. In other words, we ran the calls like business meetings.
Mom Nursing Home Zoom Call Agenda
On good days, she opened her eyes and smiled.
To ensure we could communicate the key messages we wanted our mother to know prior to her death, we had to formally structure our interactions in a way presupposed by the platform. Zoom was designed as a video-conferencing platform for business. Thus, communication is understood through an organizational lens. If we wanted to comfort my mother, we would have to package that comfort in an organizational communication format. But in this act of translation, does comfort still transmit the feeling of love and sensations of affection at its foundation? It was impossible tell based solely on the image of my mom pinned to my screen.
Day 6 – March 18, 2020
In the following days, my grief continued to be mediated by Zoom as I watched my mother slowly die. I virtually sat by her bedside, recounting fond memories for her, showing her old pictures, and expressing how much I loved and cherished her. Ending every call with “Bye Mom. I love you,” I wondered if she would live through the night.
But, I wasn’t on her bed. I couldn’t comb her hair. I didn’t hold her hand. I was unable to cover her perpetually chilly feet in her favorite blanket. I wasn’t there in the moments she was awake. I couldn’t feel her breath or bring her water. I was there and not there. My grief mediated in this liminal space of closeness and distance by Zoom.
Although my mother and I could see and hear each other, I never had the chance to touch my mom before she died. The sensation of skin to skin, feeling the life left in her till the last moment is what I longed to have. Looking at and hearing her every day over Zoom, knowing I could never feel her again was, without hyperbole, traumatic.
Relying on audio-visual technology to replicate the comfort of visceral proximity on the cusp of death is an impossible dilemma. Most, if not all, communication technology was not designed to mediate the experience of death between loved ones. In my mother’s disoriented state brought about by dementia and COVID-19, the sensate experience of sight and sound Zoom relies on could be confusing, but it was all I had.
The day before my mother died, I wandered around my house looking for something to show or read to bring her comfort. It was clear she was getting worse and her time limited. I noticed the book my maternal grandmother wrote about our family; immediately I knew I had to read it to her. Thankfully mom made it through the night and the next day, I read the chapter about my parents wedding to her. Two hours later I got the call that my mother died. For all the trauma I felt over Zoom, I’m eternally grateful I had this one moment with her. The intimacy I felt with my mother and siblings as I read from her mother’s book was the closest I felt to touching her.
Perhaps I’m being stubborn; hanging onto the ideal ‘good death’ I wanted for my mother surrounded by family which is complicating my grief. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelson-Becker & Victor explain “many people are dying alone without choice” and warn this may cause an onslaught of complicated grief (7).
But, given all this, is there a way grief during COVID couldn’t be complicated?
Nelson-Becker, Holly, and Christina Victor. “Dying Alone and Lonely Dying: Media Discourse and Pandemic Conditions.” Journal of Aging Studies, vol. 55, 2020, p. 100878., doi:10.1016/j.jaging.2020.100878.
Selman, Lucy E, et al. “Sadness, Despair and Anger When a Patient Dies Alone from Covid-19: A Thematic Content Analysis of Twitter Data From Bereaved Family Members and Friends.” Palliative Medicine, vol. 35, no. 7, 2021, pp. 1267–1276., doi:10.1177/02692163211017026.