When President Joe Biden spoke about “pandemic politics” earlier this month, it hit especially close to home. Most of my siblings are among the 25% of Americans whose refusal to get vaccinated, as he said, has “cost all of us.”
In my case, that “cost” came as the cancellation of our brother’s memorial, which was planned for mid-September in California.
Daniel died in February from complications related to diabetes. He was only 64. I have six living siblings. Five are unvaccinated. Four are staunch Donald Trump supporters who have stated COVID-19 is a “lie” or a “scam.”
Earlier this summer, one of Daniel’s adult children, the parent of a young child, was planning a fall memorial when the delta variant began to spread. I asked my siblings to get vaccinated before we all came together to pay tribute to him to ensure the safety of everyone who attended.
No matter what I said, they dug in and refused. Their responses were so vile and illogical, I eventually gave up trying to convince them. COVID marched on.
Since then, several family members contracted COVID-19 and became quite sick. As a result, Daniel’s memorial was canceled. By refusing the vaccine and ignoring the science, a few of my siblings have denied our entire family, including my deceased brother’s children and grandchild, an opportunity to properly say goodbye to him. Honoring Daniel’s life and sharing memories in communion with each other is an important ritual we won’t have.
“Without your family gathering together, you’re still on hold,” Dr. Alan Wolfelt told me in a telephone interview. “When no ceremony is held, mourning is never properly initiated. It can create a terrible, never-ending limbo for families, especially the primary mourners.” Wolfelt is the founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado, a faculty member at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the author of more than 50 books on grief and loss.
Dr. Wolfelt explained there is a reason why funeral rituals have been practiced for thousands of years by every culture and religion. Traditions vary, he said, but the purpose and the positive outcome are universal.
Some of my most enduring memories are from family funerals. In our large extended Italian Catholic family, funerals were commonplace ― and instructive. The three-day affairs of my childhood included funeral home visitation where the body was laid out. People came and went and spilled out into the hallways during the second-night’s rosary recitation. At the end of it all, a seemingly endless procession of cars crawled from church to cemetery through the old neighborhood in Detroit where the deceased grew up.
These intricate and traditional rituals taught me the importance of not only saying goodbye to the dead but of the living coming together ― grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, godparents, cousins of godparents, godparents of cousins, friends ― all sharing memories. I watched the adults cry during mass and laugh back at the house where everyone ate and drank too much. We kids would huddle in a corner imitating the adults and sneak sips of wine.
COVID-19 stole these complex and messy traditions from many of us over the last 19 months, and it was especially tragic for those who lost a loved one to the virus. When the vaccines were made widely available earlier this year, we had hope that we could return to a modified, loving version of this much-needed ceremony. However, when people are unwilling to get vaccinated, we’re forced to give up on our goodbyes yet again.
That’s what makes this so hard.
Daniel was a year younger than me. We had our differences, but we always had each other’s backs. Twelve years ago, when the hospice nurse told us our dad was nearing the end of his life, other family members asked me to keep them informed. Daniel, on the other hand, immediately bought an airline ticket and showed up. He and I spent the last week of our dad’s life together, caring for him, making him comfortable and soothing our mother, who was suffering from dementia at the time. Some months later, in an emotional long-distance phone call, Daniel thanked me for sharing an experience he called a “privilege” that he would never forget. He said I was a good sister ― something else I will never forget.
In late August, one of my siblings and someone in their family tested positive for COVID-19. They continue to struggle with severe symptoms. More recently, another sibling announced someone in their family tested positive. This is the second case in their immediate family.
Still, my siblings remain steadfast in their opposition to the vaccine. “Prayers are all we have,” said one. “It’s got to run its course,” said another.
Our family group texts are filled with hearts, kissy faces and prayer-hand emojis ― useless displays of emotion and hope that won’t change anything.
When Daniel’s adult child sent the text canceling their dad’s memorial, a promise was made to reschedule sometime in the coming months. Dr. Wolfelt told me 80% of families who postpone funerals never reschedule them. And there’s almost always an emotional consequence.
The pandemic prevented us from coming together last winter when Daniel died. Pandemic politics are keeping us apart now.
I don’t know when, or even if, I’ll be able to celebrate Daniel’s life or help to spread his ashes around the small farm he cherished so greatly. I just want the chance to remember our lives together and to get some closure. I feel as though I’ve been robbed of that because of the selfishness of a few close to me and a selfishness I see in too many others in this country.
Note: Names and some identifying details have been changed in this piece.
Anne Marie Biondo, former journalist and PR executive, is a freelance writer focusing on social justice issues. She is currently working on a memoir about her grandmother, a child bride in 1918 Detroit.
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