Op/Ed

Ways of seeing: Death from a distance

A couple of weeks ago, my Grandmother died. I had to say goodbye to her on the screen of my tiny phone. She could not hear or see me, so the person in the room had to explain to her that I was on a little machine looking at her and trying to talk to her. It was frustrating for both of us. She wanted me to be physically there and didn’t understand why I wasn’t. I wanted to be there, but could not travel because I am immunosuppressed and we are in the midst of a global pandemic. It would have been too risky, but it killed me to not be there with her and for her.
My grandmother was very important to me. In fact, I’d say that she is one of the most important people in my life. My parents named me after her, so we share the same name, right down to the letter, and I have always loved that. Growing up, I saw her every single weekend at minimum. She often watched me during the week sometimes as well, and I have many fond memories of our time together. In many ways, she made me who I am.
She loved books and learning and history and storytelling. She was strong and rarely complained, even when life got really hard. “Grin and bear it,” she would always tell me, and then she would say, “Se sufre para merecer.” That roughly translates to, “One suffers in order to deserve.” The less direct and more common translation is, you don’t get the good stuff without going through bad stuff. I’ve thought about those particular two things a lot in the past couple of years as I have dealt with my own illness. Her words echo in my mind every time I feel terrible and just want to yell at someone or quit.
I always admired her and I still do. She was raised in an orphanage with little funding and tight living quarters that was run by very strict Mexican nuns. Nothing about that seems easy to me.  But when I interviewed her for a school report when I was little and asked her to describe her childhood using one word, her answer was, “carefree.”
I honestly could not believe that someone who had been abandoned by her parents and left in an orphanage with her sister could possibly say that she lived a carefree childhood, but that’s what my grandmother did. She made the best of some of the most dire situations. She grew up and later married and had 10 children, and they had to stretch every dollar they had to get by, and she made it work. She amazed me constantly.
She was stoic, stubborn, resourceful, strong, brilliant, and she had a temper. I am proud to have at least a few of those attributes (well, maybe not the temper). I will carry those with me until I am also gone.
But in the last two weeks I cannot help but reflect not only upon my own terrible loss and the travesty of having to deal with it so far away from my family and from my grandma, but of all of those who have also had to say good bye this way over the past year and of all of those who have had to die alone on the other side of that screen. The toll of this pandemic on more than 530,000 people and their loved ones (and really, so many more, since folks are not allowed to accompany loved ones into hospitals for anything right now) will never be fully understood.
What does it mean to experience death at a distance? Yes, people have dealt with it before, but not on this level and not in this way — not this collectively. After hearing about my grandmother, a friend wrote me a note telling me she was sorry and that she had also lost her grandmother the month before. We both agonized over how terrible we felt that we could not be there with them in their final days and hours, even if we wanted to and further lamented that it would not be safe to gather with family to grieve.
There has been a lot of talk about what we should do to protect our mental health during this pandemic. Go outside! Redecorate! Get a therapist! The New York Times and other outlets tell us we should do this or that for ourselves or our kids to stay sane, but there has been scant attention to how to cope with death at a distance. We really should be more mindful of it, though.
I don’t have much to offer in the way of coping with death at a distance, except to say that those of us still here are all likely dealing with losses that those around us may not even know of or fully understand. Some of us are talking about it, some of us are not. We all cope in different ways. So just be kind. Yes, we are all tired. Yes, we are all stir crazy. Yes, we are all done and exhausted of all of the ways that this pandemic has limited every aspect of our lives. Patience is hard to conjure, but we must force whatever we can muster to continue to be compassionate to one another. At this point, we all probably know someone who has either died or has lost someone in their lives. Everybody is facing tremendous loss. Let’s all hang in there together.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history and Latino/a Studies at Penn State University. She lives in Weybridge, Vermont.

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