Our Family’s First COVID-19 Death

Aunt Geri’s heart stopped on May 20th and never restarted. She couldn’t be declared dead until May 23rd, however, because she kept breathing. The medical staff at her memory care facility, her hospice nurse, and her children still can’t understand how or why she was able to live for three days without a heartbeat. The correct answer is probably the simplest – the woman was a badass.

USAF Captain Geraldine Hanson was a nurse for several decades before she started to lose her memory. While her mind deteriorated, she remained physically strong and healthy. She did struggle when her husband died last year. She was often distressed because she knew someone was missing, someone who was supposed to be at her side, but she couldn’t remember who. The emotional strain might have been too much for her if her newest grandson didn’t make her so happy.

Look at this little lovekins:

Behold: the happiest and best-dressed baby on the planet.

If it hadn’t been for this pandemic, she might have stayed with us for a few more years. In fact, it seemed for a while that she might even beat COVID. Her daughter, Julie – herself a nurse with over 20 years’ experience – described Geri’s final days for her local newspaper.

Her story doesn’t include the strange and traumatic “agonal gasping” that went on for three goddamn days.

Apparently when you die, it is not uncommon for your body’s systems to try to keep going. Sometimes, even after someone’s heart has stopped and their brain is getting no oxygen, they’ll still move or make noise. It’s reflexive – like a final twitch or a spasm – and the deceased isn’t conscious of it. Nevertheless, it’s creepy as hell.

Agonal gasping is one of these reflexes. Even though it’s called “agonal,” the person doing the gasping isn’t in pain. They’re dead. Their suffering is over. But for the people left alive, it’s hard to reconcile the idea that your loved one is dead, but not officially. They are in a kind of limbo – not dead, but not alive. Undead, if you will.

That’s right. COVID turned my aunt into an undead zombie.

I won’t use those exact words at her memorial service (tentatively scheduled for next summer), but I can’t not mention it at all. It’s a point of pride, really. She was the type of lady who liked to go at her own pace.

Or it could just be that she wandered off and forgot to unplug everything. In her later years, she developed that habit – walking out the door without her purse or her coat, forgetting to shut off the lights. A lot of it had to do with Alzheimer’s. It’s a tragic disease. So is COVID-19.

I’m grateful that Geri was spared the respiratory symptoms of the disease. Instead of being unable to breathe, coughing and gasping, she slept most of her final days away. The real tragedy is that she had to be isolated from her family due to quarantine restrictions. She has three children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, in-laws, etc. who love her and would have been there to hold her hand and say goodbye.

The staff at her care facility did the best they could. They talked to her, told her she wasn’t alone and that her children were right outside her window (which was true – Julie even slept in her car). In one of her last coherent moments, they pointed out the window at Julie and said, “Geri, do you know who that is?”

Geri looked only slightly bemused as she said, “Oh, that’s my sweetheart.”

She couldn’t remember who was who, but she recognized when someone cared for her. Maybe she didn’t miss the big crowd of family giving her a sendoff. It could have been that she was so foggy she didn’t realize she was fading away, but I think the love people gave her throughout her life returned to comfort her in the end – when she was lying in a dark room, dying with a near-stranger at her side, love still got through to her.

So Geri was strong. And COVID-19 might have been stronger – but compared to love, it’s nothing. Love makes COVID-19 look like Original Timeline George McFly or the guy in Jurassic Park who tries to get away from the T-Rex by hiding in the toilet.

Please keep up the good hygiene practices; that’s what protects that most vulnerable – like people with Alzheimer’s who have no idea we’re in the middle of a worldwide health crisis.

Love and try to stay alive.

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