Mourning in times of COVID-19

The author’s family remembers her father by setting up a selection of pictures in the living room at their home in Wiesbaden, Germany, in March 2020. Dr. Michael Kliem died on March 24, 2020. Theresa Kliem/School of Journalism

“It’s time to come home.”

I waited for those words from my sister for days. Actually, for years, since the doctors first diagnosed my father with dementia in 2015.

When my sister called me from Germany on March 20, I was in the middle of my first University of Regina online class. The U of R had just switched from actual classes to teaching online due to the COVID-19 crisis.

I took my sister’s call instead of ignoring it because my father had been admitted to the hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, with pneumonia for the second time within two weeks. He was in really bad shape.

My sister told me about the bad news the doctors had given my family in Europe ­— my father probably wouldn’t make it this time. Even though his health had declined dramatically since I last saw saw him at Christmas, I did not expect things to decline so fast.

I started shaking and crying. I remember interrupting my university instructor with the words, “I have a family emergency. “I have to go,” before leaving the online classroom.

Somehow I managed to go online and book a flight for the same date, the last one available. Looking back, I am surprised there were still so many options to travel at that point. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had announced restricted access to Canada starting March 18 and governments in Europe closed their borders.

Updated Travel Restrictions Germany, April 2020

While I hectically searched for my German passport and Canadian permanent resident card, my boyfriend arrived and started rummaging through my wardrobe, throwing items into a suitcase. Unpacking later in Germany put a smile on my face in a time when I most needed it. My partner had chosen a very diverse selection of clothing for me — anything from long underwear to summer dresses with winter socks in between.

My boyfriend eventually drove me to the airport without breaking too many speed limits.

With six new reported cases in Saskatchewan and 212 Canada-wide on March 20, I expected stricter questions at Saskatoon’s airport, but the boarding attendant didn’t mention anything at all. She just seemed to remember when I started walking away from her desk.

“Do you have any symptoms?” she shouted after me. No one else asked me again. The same day, Germany reported 4528 new infections.

The whole trip I was scared. I was worried I would arrive too late and not see my father again. In addition, the threat of the coronavirus hung over me.

Social distancing though turned out to be no problem, at least while in the air. In a panic and with experience of ending up on Air Canada’s bumping list due to overbooking, I reserved a seat in the more pricey Premium Economy category — more legroom guaranteed and definitely overpriced for a university student.

There are many seats available during an Air Canada flight from Calgary to Frankfurt, Germany, on March 20, 2020. Since March 31 Air Canada serves all provinces and territories of Canada with a reduced network as well as a number of international destinations from select Canadian cities only. Theresa Kliem/School of Journalism

I needn’t have worried. People in the regular economy class lay spread out over three seats. I don’t have any numbers, but I figure about half the plane was empty. In my fancy Premium Economy class, I neither had any neighbours nor people in front of me. In addition, I pressed my scarf against my mouth at every opportunity. Of course the hand sanitizers in the small shops at the airports were all sold out, but I ran to the bathrooms at every opportunity to wash my hands.

Frankfurt airport in Germany was a gong show. It seemed like everyone from Europe had a layover at Germany’s biggest airport, trying to get home. Finally, I made it through pass control – again, nobody asked for symptoms – and then my mother and sister picked me up.

We drove to the hospital several times that day. I was tired from the jet lag but it didn’t matter. At the hospital, I permanently sanitized my hands until they developed a rash. Most hand sanitizers in the hospital hallways were taken off because people had tried to steal them due to the coronavirus crisis.

During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, the Helios Dr. Horst Schmidt Clinics in Wiesbaden, Germany, stopped re-filling their wall mounted hand sanitizer dispensers in the hallways due to increased theft of disinfectant. Theresa Kliem/School of Journalism

At one point, I stood outside my father’s room and listened to his cries of pain while the doctors tried to clean his lungs. It broke my heart. He was awake when they let me back into his room and I asked if I should read him a story. I had brought all my favourite childhood books which he used to read to me when I was little. He just said “Ja.”

I held his hand and read him the story of a little tiger which gets sick and goes to hospital. My father fell asleep. I would never speak with him again.

The same night the hospital called us again. They said his conditions had worsened.

We drove back and the doctors turned off all life-sustaining measures. This had been my father’s wish all his life; he didn’t want to suffer.

The rule at the hospital was that only one visitor could be in a patient’s room at a time due to COVID-19. But because we accompanied my father during his last passage, we were allowed to remain at his side.

My sister, my 72-year-old mother with a broken leg and myself stayed the whole night, crying at my father’s side, holding his hand, and waiting for him to pass away.

At 8 am in the morning, his heart was still fighting and we were exhausted. Some people say people dying don’t go because they feel the presence of their loved ones holding on. So we decided to give him some space.

During this time when hospitals are struggling to deal with the crisis, I was amazed by the care the hospital staff showed towards my father. When he was still alive one day later, my sister and I asked the nurse where he should go. We figured the hospital had so many patients to take care of, so many “important cases” as we called them. The nurse replied, “Your father is important, too.” They made sure the teddy bear we brought for him stayed close to his heart at all times.

Eventually, the rules for visitors became stricter. Among the group of exceptions were family members visiting a dying patient, so we came back every day.

“Didn’t you see the sign,” asked a caretaker at one point. “No visitors allowed.”

We tried to explain the situation and she apologized. We felt so bad for being in the hospital at a time when you shouldn’t be. But we didn’t want to leave my father alone. In the night from Monday to Tuesday the hospital called one last time. We had returned to our own beds due to exhaustion after days of too little sleep and too much crying. My father had died.

I don’t remember much of the next day at all. I remember vaguely sitting outside our house in the sunshine in my pyjamas. The following week was a nightmare. The health authorities called and told my mother she had to stay in quarantine because one of her friends, who had visited her not too long ago, lay in hospital with COVID-19.

My mum has a hard time sitting still, even with a broken leg, so being forced to stay inside where everything reminds her of my father is hard. German bureaucracy brought some distraction, but didn’t lift the pain.

After my father’s funeral I will try to go back to Canada. Connections are a nightmare, but I was able to book a flight.

I don’t know how I feel about returning to Saskatchewan. I have to leave my mother behind in times of social distancing, a mourning woman who is broken after five years of taking care of an old man with dementia.

For more stories of Canadians travelling during the coronacrisis, read more here.

Check out the photo gallery below for some impressions of life in Germany during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.