Dying on FaceTime

Covid-19 is not only dictating how we live, but also how those who succumb to the illness depart this life and leave those they love behind.

Dying on FaceTime
Photo Credit: Thomas Peter, Reuters

As if we are not already significantly restricted in our day-to-day lives by necessity of living under virtual quarantine, in a cruel display of sarcasm the novel coronavirus also has its say in how we die. Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, was quoted as saying, “Marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way.” If the coronavirus could speak to the impact it is having on our human population right now, it might say something along the same lines: “Live or don’t live, you will regret it either way.”

I actually began writing this story with the intention of exposing my own of ineptitude in the area of technology. I feel I am behind the curve in both my understanding and use of it. However, that story will have to wait. A recent report on CNN concerning a woman whose husband battled COVID-19 last month helped focus my mind on something far more relevant and timely than my spectacular ongoing blunderings with all things techie.

Hearing the story of the Lewinger family in Garden City South, New York, changed the trajectory of this piece. After lovingly describing her husband to the reporter, what their relationship means to her, their children, their faith community, and his workplace, Maura Lewinger explained how she and her husband Joe were able to spend his final moments. Together. On FaceTime.

Yes. Joe Lewinger, a 42 year old man with no significant underlying health conditions, a beloved husband and father to three, much revered assistant principle at a Catholic high school in Long Island, New York, lost his battle to the coronavirus.

His wife had not foreseen this outcome and her grief was raw and palpable as she spoke into the camera, yet there was something about the FaceTime experience that Maura Lewinger seemed to find solace in. Since first hearing the Lewinger family’s story, I have looked for and discovered many more stories where final moments shared with loved ones were made possible only through the use of FaceTime, or similar voice and video chatting apps. This is a use of technology—for a purpose and in a manner— that I can understand, organically, without further need for instruction. The simplicity of it beings me to tears.

Every day we are learning more about the horrors faced by patients with coronavirus. Most will recover, around 80% we are told. But staggering numbers of people are dying—will continue to die—because of this “beast.” There is a reason healthcare workers on the frontline have named this illness, “the beast.” It is relentless in its pursuit of human hosts. It attacks and kills mainly older people or those with prior underlying conditions. However, those of us who are younger and in good health are not immune.

Humanity will be dealing with this beast for some time to come.

In frighteningly rising numbers, people under the age of 60 are becoming infected. Some will ride it out at home, while others will need hospitalization. Even with direct medical intervention, some will not recover. And those who are dying are doing so alone, kept in intensive care units, isolated away from their loved ones.

Saying goodbye to someone we love is hard. Grieving is hard, and God knows there’s a lot of it happening around the world right now because Coronavirus and Grief are circling the globe together, hand-in-hand, as I write these words. I would never argue that the presence of voice and video chat technology in an isolation unit could make death somehow less painful or frightening for either patient, or loved ones unable to be present in the room, physically unable to comfort and hold the hand of the dying. However, I might extend my thoughts on the availability for the use of technology in this way in the opposite direction. The complete absence of any form of connection between patient and family in their most vulnerable time, erasing even the hope of sharing a final moment together, makes an already difficult situation even more painful and traumatic for those who are left behind to work through their grief.

Perhaps, if this observation is noted, if this need is made known, along with a simple suggestion to remedy it, the resulting actions could have an immediate and profoundly important impact on countless families going through this experience. Perhaps, the technology giants of the world could step in and quickly fill an overlooked hole in the care of COVID-19 patients and their families: the standard presence of technology devices in isolation units around the world to allow as many patients as possible to connect with their loved ones one last time in their final moments.

Back in 1997, my dad was dying of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I lived a full day’s drive away from my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he was hospitalized. The logistics of living outside the borders of Canada, paired with the responsibilities of parenting my then 1 year old child, made it impossible for me to spend as much time as I wanted to at his bedside. When the end came, it came quickly. No amount of pre-packing and readying myself to make the 10-hour drive home would have had me there in time to share those few, precious, final moments with my dad.

I wish FaceTime had been available to us then.

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Christina Perry
Christina Perry
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Christina Perry

Christina is a traveler, a dreamer and a poet. Her writing is often influened by her work as a speech-language pathologist in Northern Manitoba with First Nations peoples.

See all posts by Christina Perry