Valerie Hirschberg had her plane ticket booked. Her mother was dying in Arizona and she needed to be there to say goodbye to her best friend. 

But this was late March, and coronavirus rates in Washington were skyrocketing. At age 68 and with an autoimmune illness, flying presented a huge risk for Hirschberg, a Sequim resident. 

Her siblings begged her not to come: They told her it was too dangerous, too risky; that it was better to wait than risk her life. So Hirschberg did what she always does in times of uncertainty: She called her mom.

“And she said, ‘Wait.’ And I told her I would,” said Hirschberg. “She died on April 2 and I wasn’t there with her.”

Months later, Hirschberg has found it nearly impossible to grieve. She hadn’t seen her mother in months, though they talked regularly over the phone. Sure she has that piece of paper, the death certificate that states the time and place of her mother’s death, but she still “can’t fully accept it.”

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“It’s like I know it mentally in my head, but in my heart, I don’t,” Hirschberg said “Until I get in [my mom’s] house, it’s gonna be hard for me to accept that yes, she really is gone.”

The sense of isolation that comes with months of coronavirus lockdowns has taken a toll on many people, but it’s been a particularly difficult time for many elderly or immunocompromised Washingtonians who are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. Their world is changing in dramatic and permanent ways and they can’t be there to witness it. And especially in cases like Hirschberg’s, these people have had to make impossibly tough choices about what constitutes “essential” travel, weighing complex pros and cons to decide whether to attend funerals, see their parents or children or grandchildren. There is no end date in sight, and unless they want to risk getting themselves or their loved ones seriously sick, there is no good solution. 

Rituals like funerals are important because they “give meaning to being a social entity as human,” said Dr. Cheryl Kaiser, a psychologist at the University of Washington. Missing them can really take a toll on a person’s psyche.

“Rituals or ceremonies provide a unique sense of understanding reality, especially when the world is uncertain. Often, we’re grasping to figure out what’s going on in the world: What does it mean, who am I?” Kaiser said. “Questions about identity come to the surface. For [immunocompromised or elderly people], they’re missing access to these important events that provide meaning in a pretty uncertain time.”

Being forced to miss the traditional processes of grieving can cause one to grieve harder, to miss more, said Toni Williams, a Seattle-based grief counselor. 

“I have clients who may have lost loved one, either to COVID-19 or other elements, and they are having to be stifled in how they’re celebrating that loved one,” Williams said. “It changes how you feel inside. Because you might have felt that you shortchanged that person that you love or you feel guilty because you weren’t able to do as much as you would have done if they had been normal circumstances.”

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But for many people over the last few months, access to these types of grounding, self-actualizing events has been ripped away by coronavirus. 

To travel or not to travel?

Back in March, with her mother ailing, Hirschberg struggled with the idea of flying for two reasons; her mother’s insistence that she wait and confusing government messaging. When Gov. Jay Inslee first imposed the Washington state stay-home order in mid-March, only “essential travel” was allowed. But did Hirschberg seeing her dying mother qualify as “essential travel?”

“They kept saying ‘only emergency travel’. I tried to find that out — I actually called the mayor’s office and didn’t get an answer,” said Hirschberg. “I didn’t want to go against the regulations they put in place, but it was all a bit nebulous.”

Valerie Hirschberg, left, a Sequim resident, is still mourning the loss of her mother, Dorothy LaRue, right, who died in April in Arizona. Her mom advised her not to come because the risk of flying was too great, so Hirschberg stayed home.  (Courtesy of Valerie Hirschberg)
Valerie Hirschberg, left, a Sequim resident, is still mourning the loss of her mother, Dorothy LaRue, right, who died in April in Arizona. Her mom advised her not to come because the risk of flying was too great, so Hirschberg stayed home. (Courtesy of Valerie Hirschberg)

Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Inslee’s office, said there is no formal definition of essential travel, adding that to his knowledge “the ban on nonessential travel has never been enforced.”    

“[The travel ban] is a reminder that we can’t act like life has gone back to the way it was before COVID-19,” Faulk said.

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For Lisa Norris, another Washingtonian, flying to Virginia to help care for her mother who has terminal cancer felt like an essential trip. For Norris, 62, the decision on whether to travel was a no-brainer, even though she would have to quarantine for two weeks after her flights.  

Norris, along with her siblings, act as caregivers for their parents. She admires her parents: Her mother hasn’t allowed herself any self-pity during this time, always “worrying about other people’s comfort” said Norris. Working from home allows Norris to return the favor. 

She quickly decided that seeing her parents, age 87 and 92, was worth the six-hour flight and the two weeks of isolation. Then she began researching best practices to take as many safety precautions against the coronavirus as she could.

“It is a privilege to get to spend more time with her and my dad both,” Norris said. 

When she first flew across the country in early April, Norris’ plane was practically empty and she was happily surprised. The way back was a different story.

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“My plane was 75% full, and there were plenty of folks with and without masks in the Seattle airport,” said Norris. “I took a nonstop flight and didn’t move my mask or use the bathroom for about five to six hours.”

After returning to Washington for a week, she flew to Virginia again and is now quarantining for two weeks before resuming her duties as a caregiver for her elderly parents. 

How to decide?

Williams, the grief counselor, says there is no clear-cut right or wrong answer in these situations because they involve such a tough conundrum: weighing physical health concerns against emotional health and familial ties. Either way, there’s always a risk involved.

“I’ve had many clients who have preexisting ailments or diagnoses and have traveled to see loved ones that may have been in the hospital, or loved ones that they wanted to put to rest,” said Williams. “It’s important to weigh the pros and cons and make sure that they’re looking at all the determining factors to travel. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, no matter how you flip it. But it’s a matter of, are we making the most of this pandemic or are we gonna live in fear?”

But while the choice of whether to travel is entirely up to the individual, sometimes, like in Hirschberg’s case, the decision made can be hard to live with. In those instances, when reluctance to travel means missing the chance to say goodbye to a loved one, what’s even more unclear than defining “essential” or “nonessential” activity is how to grieve without closure.

Williams recommends that her clients try and “be okay in your feelings.”

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“A lot of times, American society pushes you to push your grief down and not actually articulate what you’re feeling because you have to get up and go to work,” Williams said. “You still have to function every day. But taking that time out for self-care is really important as well. And also making sure that you are thinking about what that person meant to you.

“Give yourself grace to know that you did everything that you could to ensure that that person was celebrated.”

Hirschberg is still struggling to cope with the loss of her mother. She has been journaling, writing notes to her mother, going through old pictures and reaching out to friends who have also lost loved ones. But it’s hard; her siblings were there with her mother and she was not. They don’t understand what she’s going through, said Hirschberg. And while her husband has been “available and understanding,” her mother was her best friend. 

“My mom was like the one person who just always got me my whole life. She was the one I could always call and talk to about anything and I knew she would accept me and understand me,” Hirschberg said. “That kind of loss … it’s a real kind of loneliness.”