A distant cousin of mine recently died of COVID-19. We had long ago lost touch when we both moved from our North Dakota hometown, me to Minnesota by way of stops in Florida and Georgia, and she to Texas, where she worked as a teacher, got married and raised a family for more than 30 years.
I learned she was ill when I stumbled upon a post she had written on a social media site I rarely visit. She said she had contracted COVID-19 after her husband had been ill with it and recovered. Now she was the sick one, and was hoping the virus would run its course quickly as it had with her husband.
As I continued scrolling through her page I learned she was unvaccinated. Defiantly so. I don’t know why, although it appears her politics leaned right-wing and pro-Trump, so she probably wasn’t in the minority in her suburban Texas neighborhood.
I kept checking back in over the next week, hungry for information about her status. For the first few days, it seemed she was just really miserable, but she seemed certain she’d recover. Her optimism turned to fear when she posted that she wasn’t a candidate for monoclonal antibodies because her fever was too high and her oxygen too low. A day later, struggling to breathe in the ER, she posted a short, angry rant that the ambulance that had transported her had not taken her to her first choice hospital — because that hospital was overwhelmed with COVID cases and too full to admit new ones. The end of that post is haunting, literally her last: “Please pray I get out of here alive.”
She didn’t. Fourteen days after being admitted to that last choice hospital, her husband posted on her page that she was gone.
In the weeks since her passing, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. While we weren’t close, I feel grief for the loss of another connection to my childhood and my father’s family. But just as strong as my grief is the absence of compassion I’m struggling to overcome. In my worst moments, there is anger and something more troubling, something I’m not proud of: The sense that she — and others who stubbornly refused the protection available to them — got what they deserved.
It was easy for me to hold a righteous sense of indignation — disdain even — for strangers who willfully submit to disease rather than accept the responsibility to protect themselves, their children or their community. It’s an entirely different matter to hold that same disdain for someone with whom I share a history.
As the pandemic drags on and we face a fourth and a fifth and maybe more waves of disease and death, we’re seeing shifting attitudes among vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans. Those who eagerly rolled up our sleeves this spring with optimism and a sense of duty to the collective well-being of others have gone sour at the realization that this thing won’t end as long as there remains a significant percentage of vaccination holdouts. Some of us — ashamed to raise my hand here — have come dangerously close to schadenfreude when reading about the parade of conservative radio hosts who actively discouraged their listeners from seeking the vaccine, and then, well, died from the disease.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum from the early vaccine adopters are people like those radio hosts, who still haven’t gotten the shot, many holding out for self-acknowledged political reasons. They’re coming up with wild rationalizations for their stance, and downplaying the risks of COVID, even in the face of new strains of the virus that are more nimble and deadly. There is even a new hypothesis, fueled by right wing media, that President Biden and the left’s vigorous promotion of vaccines are a liberal conspiracy to kill off conservative voters.
That these divisions have so deeply infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including our ability to grieve, to offer compassion or empathy, leaves me more unsettled than almost anything else over the past eighteen months. Even the visceral fear I carried in the earliest days of the pandemic — when my work as chief of staff for a large East Coast school district shifted overnight from budgets and busses to converting school buildings into testing sites and emergency clinics — was buffered by a sense that we were all in this together.
I don’t want anger or disdain or an absence of empathy to be my own long COVID legacy. I can’t stand the thought of thinking the worst of people, even as it’s becoming harder and harder to find evidence that we’re all just doing our best.
The only thing I can do is to keep rejecting the temptation to give in to my most base instincts.
My cousin didn’t want to get sick or leave her loved ones behind. She was deeply loved, a good person who led a productive and full life as a wife and mother, a teacher, a neighbor and a grandmother. Who am I to judge her for her beliefs, or question where they originated? I can only grieve the outcome and the waste of it all.
After a few weeks, I sent a long overdue sympathy message to my cousin’s family. I shared memories of our childhood love of dogs and ice cream. I said they would be in my prayers, that I was so very sorry for their loss, and that I would always remember her fondly.
I meant it. Maybe I don’t yet believe we’re all doing our best yet, but I can shift my thinking to believe we are all just trying.
Letting go of the anger felt good. I hope I can keep it up.
Charlene Briner formerly served as deputy commissioner at both the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Department of Human Services. This essay was first published in the Minnesota Reformer.