Some months into the pandemic in 2020, The Irish Times began its Lives Lost series. The ongoing award-winning series is composed of short profiles of people who died in Ireland and among the diaspora having contracted Covid-19.
Depending on the severity of the level of restrictions, capacity at funerals were 50, 25 or 10 during this new and frightening time. The traditional ways in which we grieved our dead, supported both by the rituals of attendance at funerals and from a wider community of family, friends and neighbours, vaporised.
Lives Lost is an attempt to tell the stories behind the numbers, to publicly acknowledge the people who died with the virus, and to celebrate their lives.
Like many of us, I find it difficult now to recall when exactly Ireland went in and out of its lockdowns, and how long those different lockdowns lasted
A team of reporters was assigned to this project, and I was involved at its inaugural stage. For more than a fortnight in April 2020, I spent hours on the phone every day, talking to the wives and husbands, the sons and daughters, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren of the people who had died; asking about what kind of people they had been, and the legacy they had left behind.
Many cried while they spoke to me. They had been so recently bereaved, and many of them had also been so suddenly bereaved, that collectively they were in shock; grieving and unbelieving. I had to take breaks in between making these calls. It was important work, but it was also sometimes difficult. Everyone who works on the series tries very hard to honour the memories of those who had died.
Like many of us, I find it difficult now to recall when exactly Ireland went in and out of its lockdowns, and how long those different lockdowns lasted. Sometimes, it all seemed to be part of one continuous terrible dream. Time since March 2020 has been the stuff of trickery. Those months in my memory sometimes stretch far wide, like a concertina pulled out, while also seeming compressed, like a concertina shut.
In the early days of January 2021, my mother, Catherine, went into University Hospital Limerick for treatment for a routine infection. The entire country was in strict Level 5 lockdown, and under those restrictions she was not permitted to have visitors. We called her every day instead.
My mother was an unashamedly superstitious person, who paid thoughtful respect to piseogs, and who believed that nature gives us signs sometimes about events that will occur
“They lost my shoes,” she said to me one morning, upset.
“How could they lose your shoes?” I asked, confused.
There had been a move to another bed, in another ward, and in the move, the shoes she had been wearing on arrival had gone missing. We had bought those shoes together, she and I, on our last overnight outing. We had gone driving and laughing through southwest Clare in late July of 2020, and spent the night in a small hotel overlooking the Cliffs of Moher where she was charmed by the antique furniture, the verdant gardens and astonishing view, the kind owners, and where she in turn charmed all who encountered her. The following morning, we had stopped at her favourite shop in Ballyvaughan, and I had found these leopard-skin pumps for her, which soon became her favourite pair. Now they were gone.
When I called the next day, she was again upset about a further loss. “They lost my skirt,” she said. “My lovely black skirt.”
“How could they lose your skirt?” I said, baffled. But it too had mysteriously vanished; disappeared into some strange ether, along with her shoes. Afterwards, I saw those losses as foreshadows: my mother was an unashamedly superstitious person, who paid thoughtful respect to piseogs, and who believed that nature gives us signs sometimes about events that will occur.
The vaccination programme was at that time only beginning; the first cohort to receive them were those resident in nursing homes. It was a fact that the virus had been spreading insidiously through nursing homes, resulting in hundreds of deaths, all around the country. My mother’s vaccination was not due to be scheduled for some weeks yet, nor was my father’s.
It was also a fact that Covid-19 was spreading through hospitals at the time. The Delta variant that had recently emerged was now a new and additional threat. Our whole family felt a constant undertow of dread while my mother was in hospital. She was somewhere she was theoretically meant to be safe and protected, but this pandemic was like a malevolent entity, unerringly finding its way into those places where the most vulnerable people were.
For practical reasons, the hospital took only one family contact number per patient, whom they liaised with. Being so overstretched at this most challenging time for public healthcare, they understandably could not be fielding calls to and from multiple family members. That delegated person for us was my sister.
“There is Covid in her ward,” my sister told me flatly one evening. What we had dreaded had happened. We did not tell our mother this news, and as far I know, neither did the hospital. We did not want to frighten her. We just wanted her home safely.
I paced my house in Dublin like the prisoner I felt, at the other side of the country from where my mother lay, unable to have any visitor
“The staff look like astronauts!” my mother chirped to me when I phoned that evening. Clearly everyone was wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE), in an attempt to mitigate any further spread of the virus. And then, “I love to hear your voice”. She always said that. It was watermarked into all our calls.
My mother recovered from the infection that had brought her to hospital, and was duly discharged. My sister drove her back home to Clare. The car windows were fully down, despite the January chill, and the pair of them were wearing masks. Once at home, a bedroom was set up for her to isolate in, and my masked father stood in the doorway from time to time to chat to her.
Within three days, my mother had become so unwell that she was re-admitted to Limerick hospital by ambulance. That evening, Sunday, January 17th, she was tested for the virus. The result came back the following morning.
“She has Covid,” my sister told me. I must have said something, but I don’t remember what. All I recall is a fug of the most visceral, appalling fear begin to descend on me like a black mist.
I stopped working on the article I had been writing because I could no longer focus. I paced my house in Dublin like the prisoner I felt, at the other side of the country from where my mother lay, unable to have any visitors; my mother who had Covid, and who had unquestionably contracted it during her former hospital stay, and who was not vaccinated.
Much of the following day, Tuesday, January 19th, is a blur. My sister and I called each other several times. I must have talked to other family too, but my entire attention was on the calls with my sister, because she was the person the hospital was communicating with. She was to receive an update in the afternoon.
“They told me her oxygen levels are going down,” my sister told me that afternoon. I did not know what that meant. I did not want to google it. I felt incapable of doing anything.
Sometime before 7pm, my sister called again. “The hospital have said that one family member can go in for 10 minutes, in full PPE.”
Again, we did not know what this meant. However, it was soon clear that the only family member who could go to the hospital for this precious 10-minute visit, was me. My father, eldest brother and sister had all been in contact with my mother when she had come home, so they were in isolation. My other brother was a very long drive’s distance from Limerick. “I’m going,” I said.
Within five minutes of my sister’s call, I was in the car, driving west to Limerick as fast as I could. It was coal-black dark and very cold and the roads were eerily empty. We were in hard lockdown, and everything was shut. Under Level 5 restrictions, people were not permitted to make non-essential journeys further than 5km. I had a “Press” sign on my windscreen, and with me, the letter I had been given by my employer to show journalists were essential workers. But there were no checkpoints that night. I just drove.
On that journey, I could not allow myself to wonder if my mother was frightened, or lonely, or in pain. All I could think was: I must be very calm, and I am not going to lose it in front of her, because I mustn’t scare her.
My mother had remarkable jade-coloured eyes. Her eyes had never blazed a more beautiful green than that moment
I arrived at the hospital at about 9.25pm. The car park was almost empty. I looked up at the walls of lit windows, and wondered grimly which one my mother lay behind. I took a very deep breath, ran towards reception, and made myself known.
“They’re expecting you,” the man on reception said. “Go straight up.”
I raced up the stairs to where they told me the “Covid ward” was. A nurse met me at the door with PPE gear. I told her my name, and my mother’s name.
“How is she?”
“Not great,” was the cautious answer.
I put on a blue plastic coat, surgical gloves, plastic covers over my shoes, a mask, and a face shield. I was unrecognisable. How would my mother recognise me, I worried, as we walked down the corridor.
She looked up as I came in. My mother had remarkable jade-coloured eyes. Her eyes had never blazed a more beautiful green than that moment. I started to speak. She had always told me she loved the sound of my voice, and that is the last sound she heard before she died, not five minutes later.
That day, January 19th, 2021, the highest daily number of Covid-19 deaths to date in Ireland were recorded. It was 93. Our family was now part of a statistic. My mother was now a Life Lost; I now knew what it felt like to be the bereaved person; the bereaved people I had spent weeks talking to for my work about those they had lost.
On the day my mother died, 1,948 other people were also hospitalised around the country with the virus. People were very, very scared. By now, it seemed everyone knew someone who had had Covid.
The hospital gave me a letter, and directed me to a hotel in Limerick which was open for essential travellers. With most of my family in isolation, and having just come from a Covid ward, I had no option but to stay in this hotel until the funeral. The hotel, previously known as a popular place for hen and stag parties, was busy with two very different cohorts of guests.
One were people like me, who had either just been bereaved, or who were about to be, and had been similarly directed there by the hospital. We sat in the bar, crying into our coffees and glasses of wine, while the barman put the sound on extra loud for the rugby match playing somewhere in the world. The other were frontline workers, who sat in the lobby, joking and laughing and playing loud games on their phones, as they took their hard-earned breaks from taking care of patients in the nearby hospital. It was the most dystopian contrast.
I temporarily developed an addiction to eBay, buying a piece of clothing every day for an entire month that I did not need. I was grateful for all the solace I could get
What did her death from Covid feel like? If you loved your own mother, and you have since lost her under any circumstances, that’s what it felt like. I stood at the hotel window that night looking out into the darkness and thought with disbelief: I have lost the person who loved me most in this world. I can’t even give a scale as to how much I loved her.
I wrote her death notice the following day sitting in my car in the garden of my family home, unable to enter the house where people were isolating. I gestured to my bereaved father through a window. We were all afraid to hug each other. I was still wearing the same dress I had left Dublin in: I had left without packing anything.
The funeral in rural Galway was, for me at least, a horror. The cortege stopped en route at her home in Ennis, where my father, who could not attend the funeral, said his goodbyes to his wife of 65 years from the doorstep. I hope never to live through a worse experience. Only 10 people were permitted at the funeral, as per the regulations at the time. Not a single friend of mine could attend.
And this is what was happening all over Ireland at that time. Everyone who lost someone to Covid had the same experience. Everyone who was bereaved for any reason at that time had the same experience at funerals. Even though the circumstances were horrendous, myself and my family remain profoundly grateful that my mother was not alone when she died. People who died in nursing homes were not allowed to have anyone with them at the end. How those families coped, I hardly know.
I sent the scarves out across the world to many of my women friends, all of whom had loved my mother too, asking for a photograph of each person wearing the scarf I had chosen for them. The photographs came back in scores
In the days and weeks that followed her death, where people still could not travel, and we had to stay at home, I saw nobody. Friends periodically came to stand at my gate and drop off wine, groceries, gifts, flowers, love. Cards and letters arrived, every single one treasured and appreciated so dearly. Parcels came in the post from friends overseas. Neighbours were so attentive and so kind. I temporarily developed an addiction to eBay, buying a piece of clothing every day for an entire month that I did not need. I was grateful for all the solace I could get.
My mother, Catherine, was a beautiful, joyful, warm and elegant woman her entire long life, with innate grace and style; a person who was always effortlessly put together. She was a genius dressmaker; one of the last pieces she made was an exquisite christening gown for her first great-grandaughter. She had a workroom full of textiles she delighted in.
She also had a very large collection of wonderful scarves, in all manner of fabrics and styles. I retrieved some of these scarves from the house in the days after her death. During those days of relentless lockdown, in the first stages of my grief, I carefully washed, ironed and folded these scarves. I sent these out across the world to many of my women friends, all of whom had loved my mother too, asking for a photograph of each person wearing the scarf I had chosen for them. The photographs came back in scores; my friends smiling, wrapped in fragments of my mother’s warmth. She would have been entranced.
My mother, Catherine, will be a year dead from Covid-19 this January. So many other people in Ireland have also lost beloved family members to the pandemic since it began. There are so many stories like mine.
May we acknowledge equally all those lives lost, and cherish all their memories.