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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

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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.

“‘Brenda said that the police had forced my dad’s front door open and found him upstairs in his bed. He was unresponsive. I could hear voices and activity in the background.’”

I picked up my phone. “Dad?” I said, as I moved from my desk to a tiny office nearby. But it wasn’t my dad; it was Brenda, one of his oldest friends, who had been my nursery schoolteacher. Like many of his friends, she had been checking up on him regularly since his health had taken a turn for the worse. He was a diabetic living alone, and everyone was worried. It was late afternoon in the U.K., and Brenda’s daughter Justine had noticed that the bedroom curtains were still drawn. The doorbell got no response.

Brenda said that the police had forced my dad’s front door open and found him upstairs in his bed. He was unresponsive. I could hear voices and activity in the background. “I’ll put the paramedic on,” she said.

Panic rising, I had to fight the urge to throw up in the nearest bin.

The paramedic asked who I was. I confirmed that I am my dad’s son. “Your dad’s blood sugar is in his boots,” he said, pausing. “Look … he’s going to die.”

But he was still alive. “Are you taking him to Whiston?” I asked, my voice cracking. The paramedic said yes, they were taking him to Whiston, the local hospital.

My dad had been a social worker at Whiston Hospital until his retirement. My mum was also rushed there prior to her death in 2004.

My hands shaking, I started frantically messaging family in the U.K., telling them what had happened and that I would be home as quickly as I could. I needed to find a flight.

My head spinning, I called a travel site — the hold music was “Homeward Bound” by Simon and Garfunkel, a song I’d always loved but which now felt painful. Juggling texts and calls from family, I booked a flight to Manchester, via Dublin, that left from JFK in a few hours. I’d get back to the U.K. early the next day.

“ ‘I needed to grab my passport and some clothes from our apartment in Brooklyn and get to JFK. I got home and opened my wardrobe. Should I take my suit? The sickening thought of a funeral.’”

My cousin Elaine, a nurse, called me to say that my dad hadn’t been admitted to the hospital. That could mean that he had died in the ambulance, she explained. Heart pounding, I called the hospital and asked whether he had been admitted. “No,” the person who picked up replied. My heart sank. “Oh, wait — they’ve just brought him in.”

Suddenly, there was a shred of hope. “How is he?” I asked. “They’re working on him now,” she replied.

I ran to the subway — I needed to grab my passport and some clothes from our apartment in Brooklyn and get to JFK. I got home and opened my wardrobe. Should I take my suit? The sickening thought of a funeral. But maybe, by some miracle, the hospital staff could save him. Could I make it back to Liverpool to say goodbye?

My phone rang. It was Elaine. “I’m sorry,” she said. “He’s died.” I went on autopilot and thanked her for telling me — it wasn’t an easy call for her to make. Dazed, I walked out of the apartment and made my way to JFK. I can’t remember much about the journey — I couldn’t sleep so I watched some movies, but I have no idea what they were.

Feb. 25, 2020

My uncle Joe met me at Manchester Airport. I could see the pain etched on his face. We walked to his car, and I realized that I was still wearing the clothes I wore to work a day earlier. As we drove to Liverpool, it also dawned on me that I was on my own — my wife and kids were in New York. I am an only child. I had no idea what I was going to do. 

I snapped back into the present as we drove away from the airport. “There might be police tape over the front door,” my uncle told me.

We got to my dad’s house — my childhood home, full of so many great memories. There was no police tape. The door was intact — it had been on the chain when the police broke it open — but was unlocked. I took a deep breath and went inside. The first thing I saw were the multiple framed photos of my kids adorning the living room. Two cute smiling little Americans. The empty house felt both familiar and alien. I was overcome with grief.

“‘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.

“‘At night, when everyone had gone, I would sit in my dad’s favorite armchair watching TV. Coronavirus was appearing more frequently on the news, but it was still an abstraction to me.’”

I was in limbo, sitting in the empty house, trying to grasp what had happened. A steady stream of family and friends came by, many with food, and cards piled up beside the front door. “When’s the funeral?” I was asked time and again.

At night, when everyone had gone, I would sit in my dad’s favorite armchair watching TV. Coronavirus was appearing more frequently on the news, but it was still an abstraction to me.

Getting to sleep was difficult. On the first night, I dreamed that my dad was in the next room calling out to me for help. I awoke with a start, and the awful realization that I could not help him. Rain and sleet battered the window next to my bed.

I started working through the bureaucracy of notifying banks, insurance companies and pension firms.

The wait for the death certificate continued, as the authorities tried to establish my dad’s cause of death.

I kept planning. I visited our parish church and went over his requiem mass. I made lists of readers and pallbearers. There were more conversations about coronavirus, as people talked about possible cases in parts of Liverpool. It still seemed unreal.

After a week, there was no sign of a death certificate. I’d have to come back to Liverpool to bury my dad. Early on the morning of March 5, I flew to the U.S. via Dusseldorf. At immigration, I was asked whether I had been in Italy or China.

I was relieved to get back to my wife and kids. When we could, we’d set a date for the funeral and travel back together for it. I wouldn’t be on my own again.

March 13, 2020

About a week after I got back to the U.S., the coroner’s office issued an interim death certificate. There was going to be an inquest into the death, but with the interim certificate we could proceed with the funeral and bury my father with my mother, as he wanted. A date was set for March 26.

But the pandemic was making its way across the globe. Restrictions on travel and public gatherings quickly followed. I postponed the funeral, in limbo again.

Family and friends, such as my dad’s neighbor Joey, rallied round to take care of the house.

April 2020

The funeral director, acutely aware of the pandemic’s reality, urged me to take action. Now realizing that it would be a long time before normal life resumed, I scheduled a burial for May 7. With funerals in churches suspended, there would be a small graveside service with just 10 people in attendance, far from the packed church funeral I had envisaged. While anxious about the risks of traveling, I felt that I had to be there.

May 5, 2020

I set off alone, arriving at an eerily deserted JFK. There were just a handful of flights on the arrivals and departure boards. Checking in, I was told that my connection from Dublin to Manchester had been canceled. “There will be another on Sunday,” the person on the desk told me. “But I’m burying my dad on Thursday!” I replied, panic rising.

I was rebooked on a British Airways flight to London. I would have to make my own way from London to Liverpool. I thanked the check-in agent and walked through the echoing airport to my flight. There were maybe two dozen passengers on the plane, which was staffed by a volunteer crew.

May 6 to May 11, 2020

Arriving in London, I walked through an equally deserted Heathrow Airport. It felt like being in “28 Days Later,” the zombie apocalypse film.

Before moving to New York in 2004 I’d lived in London for nine years, but had not been back for ages. After taking the train to Paddington, I jumped in a cab and sped to Euston Station. It was a glorious spring morning: Regent’s Park and the city’s Georgian buildings were bathed in sunlight. London looked beautiful but muted. Streets that would normally have been thronged with commuters were quiet, as just a few well-dressed people made their way to work. I realized that I hadn’t been to my own office in New York for two months.

“‘The train was almost empty. I had a carriage to myself. Outside the window, everything else seemed deserted too. Station platforms on London’s outskirts were largely devoid of travelers.’”

When I lived in London, Euston was the start of my journey home to visit my parents in Liverpool. Now I was returning to an empty house. The train was almost empty. I had a carriage to myself. Outside the window, everything else seemed deserted too. Station platforms on London’s outskirts were largely devoid of travelers.

There was even less activity outside the city, and I suddenly noticed things I had missed on my countless journeys back to Liverpool. The ruins of Berkhamsted Castle in Hertfordshire standing amid lush green lawns. Some cows crossing a stream. Now and again, I glimpsed people — a young family riding bikes on a country trail — but generally it felt like I was traveling across an empty land.

Eventually, Liverpool’s familiar skyline rose on the horizon, and I was soon back on the doorstep of my dad’s house. I turned the key and, once again taking a deep breath, stepped inside. Entering the house was not as painful as it had been in February, as the shock was less new, and I had the burial service to focus on. But I was now in quarantine. There would be no throng of visitors, no consoling arms around my shoulder, no hugs.

The following day, friends, family and neighbors stood socially distanced outside the house as the hearse pulled up and began its short journey to the cemetery. Finally, I was laying my dad to rest.

We streamed the burial service on Facebook
META,
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something I would have balked at just a few months earlier. I gave my eulogy in the warm sun, knowing that my wife and kids were watching from the other side of the Atlantic.

I made my way back to New York a few days later, one of half a dozen paying passengers on a transatlantic flight.

Christmas 2020

At Christmas I returned to Liverpool, this time with my wife and kids. As we made our way via Dublin, the new U.K. variant of the coronavirus was making headlines. We spent the quarantine clearing the house out while the kids watched endless television. The central heating was broken, as was the water boiler. Visitors had to stand in the garden, generally in the rain.

It was a sad and uncomfortable stay in the home that had given me joy and refuge when my parents were alive. Our flight home was canceled, then canceled again. Finally, we forayed into Liverpool city center to be tested for COVID-19 so we could board our flight home. The house’s contents filled two dumpsters, the detritus of a family life that had ended. With the cab waiting to take us to the airport, we threw the Christmas tree onto the dumpster, lights and all.

Feb. 24, 2021

The sale of my father’s house was completed, a year to the day since I took that phone call in Manhattan. My final view of the house was on a video call as my uncle Joe collected the last few personal items that we had left behind.

Aug. 24, 2021

Another transatlantic phone call.  Sitting at my dining table in Brooklyn, I dialed into a conference call set up by the U.K. coroner’s office. The inquest took about 15 minutes. My dad’s cause of death was “unascertained.”

Aug. 30, 2022

I will return to Liverpool with my family for my dad’s memorial mass, finally bringing closure to our long goodbye.

This essay is part of a MarketWatch series, Dispatches from a Pandemic, which began in March 2020.

Read more Dispatches:

‘All my future plans were kind of put on standstill —and I was just put on survivor mode’

‘When I go to the playground, my older son loves to try to interact with kids — and he doesn’t really know how’

‘Do I just suffer and hope things get better?’ COVID-19 long haulers face fears of reinfection, unvaccinated Americans and medical bills

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