If it meant she could say goodbye to her father, Vilma D’Mello-Fernandes would board that flight again — the loneliest trip she says a person can ever take.
“Going home to bury a loved one.”
The first time was in 2018, when an hour after last speaking to her mother, she received a call saying the woman who could have a conversation with anyone — who remembered every birthday and every name, who scribbled recipes into a palm-sized booklet that never had the proper measurements — had died.
D’Mello-Fernandes was on a plane to India from Richmond within a day.
She would have done the same three years later in April, when her sister sobbed into the phone repeating, “I think dad is gone.”
But this time, most of India’s churches were closed. Funerals were capped at 15 people, and her siblings warned her not to come as Mumbai’s coronavirus cases raged.
The pandemic, like for so many others, rewrote how D’Mello-Fernandes could grieve — the extent to which she could mourn. With her mother’s funeral, there was finality to the loss. There was a house crowded with food and people crying together. There were end-of-life rituals to release the pain.
COVID-19 has robbed her of that for almost six months.
So when her siblings buried him on Easter Sunday, the best she could do to cope with the shattering emotion was a Zoom call where family from around the world stared back at her, lighted up in a computer glow as they celebrated the man described as “generous to a fault” — someone who never had an enemy and showed his love through food.
“I know for a fact that [the church] would have been filled with priests, and that did not happen,” D’Mello-Fernandes said. “And we don’t know when it will happen so I feel incomplete. Some things don’t feel very resolved right now.”
In September 2020, when the worldwide COVID death toll was at 800,000, researchers predicted pandemic-related grief would become a global health crisis.
Each COVID death is estimated to leave nine grieving survivors behind. What’s not as documented is the people mourning what used to be the mundane details of living: hugging without fear, in-person graduations, weddings. Time.
“It’s very difficult just to bear witness to the level of suffering,” said Dr. Michael Stevens, interim hospital epidemiologist at VCU Health. “I’m lucky that I haven’t had a direct family member die from COVID, but I’m scared of it all the time.”
Stevens has watched the virus cheat patients in their mid-40s from the prime of their lives. They had children. Families. Whole worlds ahead.
Inside intensive care units, there’s the grief over losing an opportunity to protect themselves by getting vaccinated — an act he urges communities to see as a way of preventing further sorrow.
Those who survive risk the loss of fully functional lungs, Stevens said. The loss of vitality. Of health. The latest surge has stressed health care systems, impacting wait times for people needing hospital resources for a heart attack or a broken hip. Health care workers have mentally and emotionally collapsed under fatigue.
Vaccines had altered the trajectory of a virus that’s now killed millions, prompting the pandemic — however briefly — to retreat in the early summer months. It wasn’t enough to counter the resurgence, which then denied D’Mello-Fernandes the ability to bury her father, who died of natural causes.
This upcoming Christmas will be the fourth one where she can’t dial her mother’s number to say “hello,” and the first where her father’s voice wouldn’t be on the other line from his home in India asking “when are you coming?”
D’Mello-Fernandes used to tell him not to worry, that she would come back soon. He died before she got the chance.
There’s been little to routinely acknowledge the devastating waves of loss of the past 18 months, which is what’s difficult about an ongoing pandemic, said Allison DeLaney, pediatric and women’s health chaplain at VCU Health.
There’s no real break.
“We can’t grieve it,” DeLaney said. “I almost feel traumatized day to day remembering what we endured already and how tired we are and fatigued.”
Even if patients didn’t have COVID, restricted visitation prompted by the virus meant separated families. There were nurses working the night shift so they could help their kindergartner with virtual school the next morning.
Then there’s the guilt that comes with mourning when there hasn’t been a death, leading people to avoid talking about the mental toll. But part of DeLaney’s role in accompanying patients, families and staff through crises has been to remind them that: “You don’t have to carry this invisible grief by yourself.”
“The heart is honoring grief for what it is, which is something that we’ve cared about that is no longer. So it could be a thing, an object, a loss of capacity,” DeLaney said. “Inevitably, if we try to stuff it down, the denial of it comes back to bite us in many ways. So if we’re going to have to go through something that’s hard, how can we support each other?”
One major way is normalizing the conversation, said DeLaney, who was the driver behind D’Mello-Fernandes, a clinical care nurse at VCU Health, sharing her story on Aug. 30, which was National Grief Awareness Day. She, alongside the health system’s bereavement committee, also started the “Share Our Hearts” campaign at VCU, where people could make and share origami hearts as a symbol of care.
And in a pandemic where touch has become nonexistent, the hearts became an “if I could, I would hug you right now.”
“A lot of us feel like, ‘Oh, I could have done more. I could have done more,’ ” DeLaney said. “It’s like maybe you did what was perfect for that person and maybe you won’t see the results of the comment that you made. Maybe they’ll remember what you said a day, a week, a month from now, and it will lead them to where they need to be.”
For D’Mello-Fernandes, she’s reminded of a string of words she wishes she could hear one more time in the moments when the pandemic feels too uncertain and the pain is too much to bear.
“Hold on to your faith,” her mother used to say before telling her to pray for others. “God is still doing great work in us, and sometimes we don’t see it.”
In the past few years, D’Mello-Fernandes has noticed it when comforting others experiencing similar losses — others who are going to know what she felt on that plane in 2018. She’s seen it in the unconditional love of family, in knowing, “I can just lean on them and they can lean on me” to get through this. She hears it in the retelling of the memories her parents left behind and the lives they lived.
And maybe by the one-year anniversary of her father’s death, she will feel it after finally boarding the flight home and seeking refuge in the arms of the people who loved him, too.