Pandemic Reflections

A Funeral on Pandemic Eve

Was our grief an omen?

Photo by Rhodi Lopez on Unsplash

One year ago this week, I returned from a conference in San Antonio to learn that a dear friend had died. The news shocked me. I hadn’t known that G was diagnosed with cancer six months earlier. Now her funeral was in just a few hours. I had to go. But I’d spent the past week drenching my hands in sanitizer and greeting friends with elbow bumps, worrying about crowded spaces, wondering if I’d been exposed to COVID at the conference or during the flights to Texas and back to L.A. What if I spread this new mystery virus to the mourners and added to the suffering of a community already reeling from G’s loss?

Although I hadn’t heard the term then, what I really was wondering was: would this funeral be a superspreader event that could lead to other deaths… and more funerals?

But I didn’t know that’s what I was wondering. Or rather, I didn’t let myself know. We were still in that netherland last March when COVID was an abstraction, a what-if might-be crisis that seemed eminently debatable. Maybe it would go the way of the swine flu pandemic, which caused the cancellation of another conference I’d been scheduled to attend in 2009, but which never materialized into the serious threat we all feared.

Although I hadn’t heard the term then, what I really was wondering was: would this funeral be a superspreader event that could lead to other deaths… and more funerals?

What dwarfed my concerns about COVID were my memories of G. We’d known each other since our kids were babies together, 34 years earlier. After moving to different parts of the city, we hadn’t seen each other often, but we did get together just a few months before she was diagnosed. Over lunch with a mutual friend, G stunned me with her gorgeous closeups of blooming flowers — photography her new passion. She’d spent her first act in finance and her second as the most gung-ho stay-at-home mom I’ve ever known, but now she was having the time of her life in her third act as an artist. She was also planning a trip with her husband to Europe and looking forward to her first grandchild.

Now she was gone. Just like that, I thought — the first of a thousand times I would have that thought over the year to come.

I went to the funeral. Of course, I did. I had no symptoms and knew no one who’d been infected. I needed to pay my respects to G’s family. Still I would take precautions. I didn’t have a mask, since those were being rationed for front line workers, but I brought my hand sanitizer and arrived early, choosing a seat in the back of the chapel where I thought I could keep a safe distance from others.

I seriously underestimated the size of G’s community. The pews kept filling, tighter, and tighter. Soon there was standing room only. Then the monitors were switched on for those who had to stand outside. There was no space for distancing here — either physically or emotionally. Hundreds of us bore this grief together.

Now she was gone. Just like that, I thought — the first of a thousand times I would have that thought over the year to come.

G was a classic Giver. She threw herself into friendships, joint projects and service of all kinds. She hadn’t just been the linchpin for her own family; she’d provided the connective tissue for her daughters’ friends, their school, her neighbors and synagogue, and now her artistic network. She was actively, acutely beloved. The chapel throbbed with sorrow and disbelief.

As we waited for the service to begin, groups of G’s friends met in the aisles and fell into each other’s arms. Clusters of three, four, five people wept and hugged. My sense of dread deepened as I watched, fearing the spread of novel coronavirus through their shared tears, touch, and breath. Was I watching this tragedy multiply before my eyes?

I pressed myself to the end of my pew and turned my body away from the young women next to me — friends of G’s older daughter. I wished I had a mask. Fortunately, they ignored me. I knew no one else here but G’s family.

Then I spotted her husband entering the chapel. He looked as if he, too, were a cancer patient. Gaunt, pallid, hollow-eyed. He and G had been besotted with each other. I remember marveling long ago at her randy descriptions of their marriage. Theirs was a relationship without sharp edges. Now death had sheared straight through it.

And all I could think as G’s husband was passed from one knot of sobbing mourners to the next was: will he have the strength to survive if he’s infected today — or while sitting shiva in the days to come?

When my turn came, he was still surrounded. I met his haggard gaze from a distance and touched my fingertips to my lips. He mouthed my name and closed his eyes. And then he was swept away.

My sense of dread deepened as I watched, fearing the spread of novel coronavirus through their shared tears, touch, and breath. Was I watching this tragedy multiply before my eyes?

After the service, as we slowly made our way outside, I tried to resist the sense of gathering doom. The mourners around me were too preoccupied with their immediate loss to contemplate all that we had yet to lose. They were too desperate for consolation to recognize the danger that their hugs posed. But I had just enough distance to register G’s funeral as an omen.

As unimaginable as the loss we were all feeling that day, there was so much more ahead of us. More grief. More unknowing mistakes. Even more intense longing for human consolation.

And yet, just as G’s huge community did that day, we would face these sorrows together, all of us. The sun would come out, as it did that day. Like G’s husband, we would find our own way forward. And in the process, we would learn to celebrate the wonder of life even as we were forced to confront the specter of its inevitable end.

Aimee Liu is the bestselling author of novels, most recently Glorious Boy, and nonfiction about eating disorders, wellness and psychology. More@ aimeeliu.net

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store