Grief in a Time of Separation
Rest in Peace: Adiba Aziz (1931 - 2020)
The first phone call from the hospital had come the weekend after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the White House. Our household was celebrating, jubilant at the history being made. The doctor said my grandmother had been brought to the hospital from her nursing home and now had pneumonia. She had tested negative for Covid-19 one week before, but now had the classic symptoms.
I called my grandmother Dadiye. She had lived with us since I was an infant, helping my mother raise me and my brothers. Only ten months before the pandemic we had made the difficult decision to move her to a nursing home—and now she was in trouble.
Could we visit? I asked.
No, the doctor responded, there were strict rules about who could enter the hospital and for what reason. The nurses promised to FaceTime us when they could.
The doctor called again the next day. Dadiye was on oxygen support and her latest test result came back positive. She was moved to the special Covid ward. Her nursing home was experiencing one of the worst outbreaks of any long-term care facility in our city.
That night, the nurse FaceTimed us at the exact scheduled hour. My family huddled around the iPhone. Dadiye, face bright as ever, appeared on the rectangular screen. She had on an oxygen mask and was trying to speak.
My grandmother said the word “Pani,” and my father panicked, explaining to the nurses that “pani” meant water in our language. We struggled to translate for her. It was painful to watch. We talked loudly and could barely hear the nurses, whose voices were muffled behind masks.
I was staring through a portal into a sealed-off world—and I could not admit my own fear, not then, with my family around me.
“Sorry, we have to go,” the nurse said. “We have to call the next family.”
The next few days felt like weeks. I would go on long walks through my neighborhood, reminiscing about how quickly time had passed. I felt an ominous weight on my chest.
All year, I had worn a mask, not gone anywhere unless it was an outdoor walk. I had a book to write so the enforced pause actually cleared up my mind. With so many decisions already made for you, there is little freedom to be paralyzed by choices. I had not visited my grandmother in her nursing home out of extra precaution, even in the summertime. On my walks now, I wondered if that had been a mistake.
The last time I saw Dadiye was in January—January 31, 2020, which was her eighty-ninth birthday. I was at the nursing home, and we had spoken about her life. Dadiye was born Adiba Aziz in 1931 in colonial India. The year she was born, life expectancy in India was just twenty-seven. She had been a teenaged girl living in Amritsar when Partition struck, forcing her and her family to abandon their home before the midnight hour in 1947.
Dadiye was the matriarch of our family, fierce in that old Punjabi sort of way, valuing education above all else. Dadiye had immigrated to Canada with my father and played that essential role so many grandparents play: caring for the children while the parents are at work.
She was like my second mother. Her husband, my grandfather, had passed away before I was born, but Dadiye never took off her wedding ring. When I was a boy, she used to slip me ten dollar bills on Eid and my birthday, and later, when I was struggling to get to college, she would whisper, “Get scholarship.” On summer nights, me and my brother coming back from basketball at the local court, seeing Dadiye talking to a Sikh auntee on the porch, two women who had witnessed the horrors of Partition from opposite sides. And later, on winter nights, when I returned from Yale to her hugs, she beamed with pride as she said, “My grandson, Allah give you more blessings.”
That weight on my chest, I knew, was an omen. Time was slowing down and I could smell, hear, feel, even see Death approaching, slowly, then all at once, coming for my past.
It struck me while watching the colorless sky, the birds that sang early one morning between the shivering trees, that the ones who are being taken, have survived more than I can imagine.
A grandfather who made it through Auschwitz, taken by the virus.
An Hispanic doctor, treating the vulnerable, until fatally catching the virus himself.
A Black woman, another doctor, dying of the virus and told in the hospital that she was wrong to be asking for pain medications.
Stories, not numbers. The numbers rise, but they are faceless, abstract. To the nurses and doctors, we humans are patients: fitted into new uniforms, closed away, sick and ill, dueling with Death. At some point, even the most sensitive and caring doctor or nurse will be numb to what they are seeing. They will have to create a mental barrier, do the professional job that is required. No one sees what they see. No one smells what they smell. No one hears those isolated cries of dying men and women in those rooms.
We see numbers. We see statistics. Then we ignore them because, of course, the virus only comes for other people’s parents, grandparents, daughters, sons, husbands, and wives.
What is true of life is true of Death: by the time we realize that time is finite, it is often too late.
Three days later, my father said, “The doctor called again. He is saying we can visit the hospital, if we want. Only two people allowed.”
Afterwards, it was the phrase if we want that would lodge in my ears: the days of families going in and out of the hospital, sitting by their loved ones bed, speaking with (and translating for) doctors and nurses—were gone.
I drove my parents to the hospital. It was an overcast day, bleak and lifeless. I told my mother that me and my father would go up, see Dadiye, then I would come back down and swap places with her. My heart beat with determination: I had promised my grandmother in January that I would see her again, and now I was frightened by what I might encounter.
The hospital had a long line of masked visitors and patients, almost none of them allowed inside. To get access to the hospital, you must have an appointment or be taken straight to Emergency. Only those with special permission are allowed beyond this door.
“Name?” the security guard asked.
My father told them Dadiye’s name. We were told to wait, and after sanitizing our hands, we waited some more.
A young woman checked in with us ten minutes later.
“Two people can go up,” she said. “Only two.”
A nurse led us into the labyrinth of the hospital. The hallways were quiet, seating areas blocked, rooms dimmed. It felt like a deserted place, as though a great storm had swept through the building.
On the fifth floor, we stepped out of the elevator. I saw a giant red sign:
COVID-19 UNIT — DO NOT ENTER
The nurse explained the protocols. She gave me my protective equipment: I put on a second mask over my first mask, blue rubber gloves, a yellow gown over my winter coat. I walked towards the hallway, sweating under that fear, feeling like I was entering a war-zone.
“Here you go,” the nurse said. She took us right up to the red line, then disappeared into another hallway.
I saw another sign:
NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY
I looked down a long hallway, empty, rooms to the left, and in each room, an isolated patient. Around me were the sick and dying, people that no one outside this hospital would see.
My father lingered in the hallway. I was too impatient, trying to find my grandmother.
In the first room, I saw an elderly woman with an oxygen mask. Her head was turned to the side. The comment on the door said URDU and I knew this was my Dadiye.
I approached my grandmother’s bed slowly, walking right up to her.
Dadiye’s eyes were clear, staring upwards. Sweat formed on her forehead like dew upon a flower. Her cheek was swollen where the oxygen mask pressed against the bone. She looked tired but alive. She looked sixty-five. On the table was a half-empty jello container, napkin, and spoon; it hit me that just a couple days ago, she was fully functioning.
“Wake up, Dadiye,” I said. I was a child all over again. “Let’s go home. Wake up.”
All I wanted to do was hold my grandmother in my arms, the way she had held me in her arms for years when I was a boy.
My grandmother did not stir. Tears swelled in my eyes. The memories flashed through me: a summer afternoon, long ago, walking together to Parkway Mall in Scarborough to get McDonalds and Oh Henry chocolate bars; a recent December night, sitting by the fireplace, listening to stories of Partition; the sound of her shuffling in the other room as I studied for the LSAT; the daily, unconditional embrace of a grandmother’s love.
I reached over to the bed, pulled the blanket back. Her hands were bruised into a dark purple, another symptom of the virus. When I touched her, my grandmother grunted, tried to lift herself up. By the time my father entered, she was awake, unable to speak but there.
My father touched his mother’s forehead. Neither of us could ever have imagined being in this position.
Outside the window, I saw fog, mist, forest, trees, the haze of white clouds.
“I’m coming right back,” I said. “I’m going to get Amma.” I wasn’t thinking straight. I had forgotten where I was, what was happening, what I had to do.
I took my protective gown off at the exit, disposed of the blue gloves, sanitized twice and ran downstairs. I was rushing through the hospital quickly, the sights blurring my vision: memories, hopes, her face, the sheer blue of the machines, the bed, the white room, the 100% alcohol stench, the fact that no one outside these walls knew what was happening.
As soon as I crossed the red line downstairs, I realized I had made a big mistake.
“You can’t go back up or swap with anyone,” said the nurse.
I had misunderstood the rules. Once you left, you had to leave. There was no swapping. There was no going back. (Even this act of visiting was a rare privilege. No one else in the family could go.)
“But I have to go back up,” I said, pleading with the nurse.
“You cannot,” she said. “Those are the rules.”
I was trained as a lawyer and knew how to make arguments on my feet—but there was no argument I could make. I said only what I felt in my heart:
“But I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye!”
Back at home, I stared at the ceiling. Anguish filled my throat. I wanted to get in the car and drive back to the hospital. My grandmother would struggle to communicate in English. She would be wondering why I left. She would ask about the bruises on her hands. She would ask why she was alone.
Four days later, the FaceTime call arrived from the nurse. We gathered around the screen again like it was a talisman.
Dadiye appeared on screen, eyes searching upwards. The sound of oxygen buzzing. The slow breaths that were fading.
My father could not bear to look. My mother recited the Kalimah, the Islamic prayer to be recited at the moment of death.
I held back tears. I said, “Khuda Hafiz, Dadiye,” uttering my last, conclusive goodbye.
My grandmother took her last breath. She was still on the screen, the nurses holding the phone. Consciousness then left her body. Dadiye passed away in front of my eyes, but far from my touch. I felt the silence engulf me. The speechless silence of Death. It was the day before Thanksgiving.
The nurse said, “Sorry for your loss,” as meaningfully as she could, and hung up the phone.
My father made funeral preparations, checking against regulations. Our Islamic grieving rituals were all discarded. There was no janaza or funeral prayer at the mosque. No families gathering in the home to pay their respects. Only ten people were allowed at the burial, a rule we strictly followed. Again, I wanted to argue with the rules: but the rules were in place to protect us.
On a cold, overcast day, I buried my grandmother, silently grieving as I walked, alone, wishing I could have spoken to her one last time.
After the funeral, my grief became anger: a defense mechanism, an escape valve. Thoughts came into radical focus, then dissolved before I could grasp them. I know anger is futile, but the sight of the unmasked now makes me rage in silence.
Is Death political? Perhaps it always is, depending on color and circumstances.
Does a cult of Death pervade the politics of those who want government to do as little as possible when people are suffering? If Death is by definition political, what does it mean that decades of right-wing policies have gutted and privatized and slashed funding for health care, for elderly care, for maternal care, for long-term care, for childcare? Is it because we know who Death takes first?
So Death, then, must be political, because politics itself is about human lives.
For most people, daily reports of Death are an abstraction, mathematical. Stalin famously said that one million deaths is a statistic. The Chinese Communist Party would agree. But Stalin did not live in a democracy, where transparency and accountability are expected. In a democracy, the dead are counted.
Death must be marked, remembered. And Death by a novel virus, originating in a criminally reckless country, cannot, should not, and will not be forgotten. In a democracy, we understand there is a story behind each human face that Death has stolen. No government can censor our testimonies, no dictatorship can hide our tragedies.
This is where my anger leads me: to a dead-end.
All summer, Death stole the bodies of young and old. There was the novel virus destroying lungs and nerves, but also the older pandemic that’s been stealing lives since before I was born.
Yes, Death is always political. That its scythe so easily takes Black and brown people is the point at which my anger cannot be consoled.
On my walks now, I encounter a world grown suddenly dark. Stillness is around me. Stillness and silence within me.
Grief is that heavy breath before waking up at 6:30 am. Grief is that idle stare at the same page. Grief is the rush of tears, at 3:30 pm, when we would have chai and biscuits. Grief is emptiness spreading outward across my chest. Grief hits me where words cannot reach.
People who know grief have told me it does not fade. You just get used to it. You adjust to the feeling of being broken, and in that very brokenness—that deep well of irreversible loss—love is resident. Perhaps that is the real definition of love itself: to remain unconsoled in the face of grief, yet to carry on.
I feel peace when I think of the other families who are grieving in silence and isolation. I feel connected to them, knowing that behind the walls of these apartments and houses are people just like me, mourning what Death has done. Grieving not in ordinary times, together, but in a time of separation, alone. We share a bond, the families of the fallen, during this cruelest winter.
And in my grief, I realize something fundamental: that life itself is the miracle. Life, a temporary interlude of borrowed time—one that Nature, Death’s master, will always take. The days might be slow, but the years fly. The paradox of living (and life) is that we often completely miss the moments of pure happiness while they are happening. Only when Death has taken our loved ones do we look backwards, replay the tape. By then, it’s just a movie in our heads. One day, we will be the ones who are mourned.
My grandmother’s story now lives through me—her indomitable spirit my breath, a fierce and loving woman who sleeps now in her final resting place, unconquered still. As the New Year approaches, I celebrate life with gratitude and love. I let grief do its work, knowing it has already changed me. And I hope that we, the living, make proud those who have perished.
The virus will be defeated. The sun will rise over our lives again. But the fallen will remain with us, in our hearts, in the memories that linger, in the stillness that calms the soul on a winter night, as the snow falls over the hospitals, the fields, and the cemeteries, the silence undisturbed.
Verily, to God we belong and to Him we shall return. — al-Quran