Loss in the time of COVID

My mother's hospital had decided to all halt all visitors to protect the patients.


On a day in late March, I was all packed to leave after work to visit my mother in England. This was a trip I had been making regularly for a few months since her diagnosis of cancer. Each visit was a short four days, but an amazing time—the stories she shared about growing up in Kenya and moving to India and then to England were enlightening, describing an era that had yet to recognize diversity, equity, and racism.

Dr Gulati as a baby with her mother
Dr. Gulati as a baby with her mother.

She shared how she and my father, an engineer, both immigrants with limited income, used socks as gloves for my toddler hands on the long walks home in English winters. We reminisced about how my father would bring a small treat home every Friday evening for me and my sisters. She and I watched movies together. She asked me to play songs that she held dear. She did not miss a chance to scold me, as all mothers do! It was a time of immense connection.

As I was en route to the airport that day, U.K. travel restrictions in response to the COVID pandemic were announced. My mother's hospital had decided to all halt all visitors to protect the patients.

Over the next weeks, all of our interactions were facilitated by the hospital's staff. They connected us by video at every opportunity. They stroked my mother's brow, combed her hair, held her hand, and played her favorite movies—things her family should have been there to do. They were our heroes. Over the next few weeks, my mum became more confused, slowly lost interest, stopped eating, and began to fade away.

On a Friday morning in late June, I was heading to see my patients on the wards when I got a call from my mother's hospital. The matron said very softly, “Your mum needs you.” My siblings and I were there, on video, in her last moments. We played one of her favorite songs, Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World.” It took all of 25 minutes to say goodbye to our mother—a lifetime slipping away in 25 minutes. We all reached out and tried to physically touch her through the screen and so hoped she knew we were there with her.

Dr Gulati with her mother when she became an ACP Fellow
Dr. Gulati with her mother when she became an ACP Fellow.

We were not there to hold our mother's hand, caress her brow, or whisper how much we loved her, and I know my family is among many hundreds of thousands in that situation. While the world has lost so many to COVID, so many others with non-COVID diagnoses have also passed without family at their sides.

My mum's ashes sit waiting to be scattered, we hope soon, once COVID allows safe travel and the religious rituals of goodbye that it has stolen from so many. This is just one story of loss in the time of COVID.