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What it's Like to Lose a Loved One During COVID-19

Chris Vandenberg
June 20, 2020

           Towards the end of 2018 my partner and I relocated from Vancouver to the interior of British Columbia. I had been offered a position with a start-up company and was sold on the idea that I’d be moving to a beautiful place, with people I respected, working my dream job. Unfortunately, things don’t always play out the way you imagine them;

corporate structures shift, managers get power-hungry, and new towns don’t look as good as they do in the brochures.

The stress got to me; I took it home with me. By the end of 2019 I had lost motivation, gained weight, and had passion projects fall to the wayside. My hugely supportive partner, who herself had access to a counsellor through her work, urged me to find help. But I had no idea where to start.

           I was introduced to Dawn exactly when I needed it the most. A friend and former co-worker posted about Dawn on Facebook, as they were friends with the founder and were supporting a new initiative. I filled out the intake form immediately and the next morning was communicating with Davis Yates. Davis and I had a very comforting phone chat. I was as excited about his new venture as I was about finding help. A few days later Davis sent me contact information for three counsellors. I had a particular interest in two of them, and after phone intakes with both of them I decided on the match that was right for me. And little did I know just how important this relationship would become.

           In February of 2020 I had my first real appointment with a counsellor. I learned new techniques for managing stress and I was excited for what might come from future sessions. Then it happened. My father passed suddenly and tragically while on vacation, on February 28th, 2020. My parents lived in Ontario so I left British Columbia as soon as I could. The process of bringing the body back to Canada took weeks, and by the time we were able to hold a funeral it was March 17th.

That same day Ontario declared a state of emergency in regards to Covid-19.

           Grieving a family member is always difficult, but especially during a pandemic. You’re isolated from the world. Fortunately, we were able to have a funeral. It was the last one held at this particular funeral home before the shutdown. Hugs were banned, only every other seat in the chapel was to be occupied. Most of the family were able to attend, but one of my father’s brothers was living in Thailand and wasn’t allowed to leave the country. I can’t even imagine how heartbreaking that must have been for him. Originally, we had discussed meeting up at a restaurant or pub after the service. However, since everything was closed and my mother wasn’t up to entertaining, the family all went their separate ways afterwards.

My mother, my sister and myself ate the leftover carrot sticks and egg salad sandwiches from the chapel as dinner that night.

           In a pandemic, you can’t help but feel like you’re going through it alone (even if deep down you know that isn’t true). I was lucky to have my counsellor. Despite having to close their office they were willing to communicate by phone. But what about my mother? Her and my father had bought a house in a new city only a year earlier, right after they retired. Now my mom was there alone. My sister and I stayed with her for a time but eventually we had to go back to our own lives. My mother had nothing to return to but a big, empty house. Grief is a serious thing, but I was especially concerned about the trauma. My mother had been with my father in the accident. She was there while the paramedics tried to revive him.

She had to travel back to Canada, alone, with my father’s luggage. Sit on an airplane surrounded by strangers. I knew she needed to talk to someone.

           Dawn returned my call within a few hours. I explained the situation. I told my mother I would find her someone to talk to. And with my mom’s permission Davis got right back to work and helped me find matches suitable for the grief and trauma my mother was going through. I talked the matches over with my mom and within days she had an appointment set up with a counsellor of her own.

I’ll never be able to quantify the impact of connecting my mother with a counsellor, but I am absolutely sure the positive impact was enormous.

           For many of us, Covid-19 has been marked by isolation and loneliness. During a period of loss it is natural to want to surround yourself with friends and family. Although I couldn’t see my counsellor in person, I increased the frequency of our chats after I got back to British Columbia. Sometimes we focused on grief, other times we talked about isolation. Sometimes we talked about nothing but our tomato gardens. The important part was having someone to talk to that was empathetic, able to listen, and ready to offer strategies to allow me to reflect and move forward. I wish I hadn’t waited as long as I did to access therapy, and I highly recommend that anyone dealing with grief or isolation take the plunge.

           Last year, when I was hemming and hawing about whether or not to seek help, my amazing partner broke it down for me.

She told me, “if there’s something out there that might make you feel better, why not try it?” And really, what do you have to lose?  

           Counselling continues to help me with work-related stress, but I’ll forever be the most grateful for how it helped my family go through my father’s passing. And all the gratitude I owe to the counsellors, I owe also to Dawn. Finding help can be trying at the best of times, and in the wake of a death it is more than many people can tackle on their own. Some friends brought me food, some sent cards, some offered a hug. Dawn sent my family lasting relationships to help us continue on. And I will be forever grateful.

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           Chris and his family lovingly remember Jerry Vandenberg – husband, father, and friend – for his kind and gentle soul. Jerry, Debbie (wife), and Chris are pictured below.

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Chris Vandenberg
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