The Challenges of Saying Good-bye To Loved Ones in the Coronavirus Era

Joe Macias (left) with a photo of his late father, Salvador.

There have been nearly 5,800 deaths in Los Angeles county so far this year because of the coronavirus, in particular due to its ominous strain known as COVID-19.

Joe Macias did not expect his father, Salvador, to be one of them. While the 83-year-old patriarch had been slowed by a stroke that had limited his mobility and rendered his right arm useless, the stroke had occurred 20 years ago and he had recovered. Salvador, who loved to ride and care for horses before the stroke — “A real Charro, would break his own horses and also ‘shoe’ them,” Macias shares softly, fondly — his father had ailments now and then, but nothing to suggest he was headed toward failing health. 

But after the retired maintenance supervisor for a convalescent hospital became ill on Aug.4, the virus would take him away quickly, Macias said — so quickly that Salvador didn’t know he had COVID-19 when he passed away.

Macias said the illness Salvador had on Aug. 4 “felt like a regular cold.” By Aug. 10, however, Salvador didn’t want to get out of bed and was not eating — “and he never missed meals,” Macias said. The family took him to a hospital emergency room and had Salvador tested. They got back a positive result for COVID-19 on Aug. 11. But Salvador’s deterioration could not be halted. He died in his Long Beach residence on Aug. 20. It’s surreal and painful for relatives who aren’t even allowed in the hospital during their loved ones final days. 

Other Family Members Test Positive

The virus didn’t stop with Salvador, Macias said. His mother tested positive and required hospitalization. A younger brother, who was constantly checking on the parents and had taken the father to the emergency room, has also tested positive. His brother is quarantined at the parent’s Long Beach residence, packing up his father’s things and decontaminating the house.

Two sisters who were also regularly in and out of their parent’s residence were tested; their results were negative.

The shock of losing his father was hard enough for Macias, who lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife, Evelyn Aleman. But there would be another immediate issue for the family; how to properly say goodbye to Salvador. Because trying to plan or have a funeral is vexing in 2020. Now, you typically cannot have a service with lots of people in attendance.  You have to consider that the desire to comfort each other by touching, getting close to express sympathy, hugging and reaching out to hold hands by mourners could unknowingly be passing the COVID-19 virus to others.

Macias Saw Signs of The Virus In March 

Macias, a marketing specialist who works with his wife’s San Fernando Valley public relations company, believes he had an earlier firsthand view of the virus.

His wife Evelyn had been ill in March “with like nine of the 11 COVID symptoms. But they couldn’t test me for it at the hospital emergency room then because they didn’t have a test available,” she said. “I had tested negative for the flu, which was the only test they had. They told me to let it run its course.”

She said she went back home “and struggled” with feeling sick  until the beginning of May. “Then I began to feel better and now I’m fully recovered,” she said. It was Evelyn who, after hearing Macias’ brother describe his father’s condition on Aug. 10, urged him to get Salvador tested.

Macias was convinced that a traditional funeral for his dad would not be possible, though understanding how important such a ceremony would be to his family. He said his father, who had come to the United States from Zacatecas, Mexico, also has other relatives located in Baja, Las Vegas, and parts of Illinois who would want to travel to Southern California and pay their respects.

“[Funerals] are an opportunity for families to say goodbye to someone who had some kind of an impact on them,” Macias said. “And it can be an opportunity to connect with others they have not seen in a long time. When a tragedy happens, you can soften the blow by coming together. You have that emotional support.

“I know that’s something, in this case, that one of my sisters is longing for — to talk with somebody else, to hug somebody other than me, her brother, and my aunts.”

Macias and a sister were in charge of notifying the family of Salvador’s death. With his mother about to be hospitalized, Macias was feeling a bit overwhelmed. When he called his relatives, he expressed his views of postponing plans for a large-scale memorial — at least for now.

“Given what I had learned through Evelyn’s experience, and what we had seen over and over in the news, I said, ‘we’re not going to have a traditional funeral,’” Macias said.

“I knew that people would want to come regardless [of how they feel about the COVID-19 risk] and I would hate to be placed in a position where this gathering is going to be one that gets other people infected. And now my mom is going to have to be quarantined, and I don’t know how this plays — could it go real bad like it did with my father, or does she recover enough.”

Macias suggested cremation. The suggestion was not well received well by other family members.

“They were saying, ‘we have to bury him,’ and ‘they want to say their goodbyes,’” he recalled. “I get that. But the responsible thing to do is postpone the burial and the gathering.”

The discussions — which Macias said he initially kept from his 76-year-old mother so she could concentrate on regaining her health — went on for a couple of days. But the situation was not being resolved, and it was starting to create a divide amongst the relatives. It was difficult, but Macias was unmoved. “I know what (COVID-19) can do and has done,” he said.

Support From Uncle Tony

The answer came from an unexpected source. Unbeknownst to Macias, Salvador had talked to his brother, Tony, the day before his death. During the conversation, Salvador had told his brother that if he died, he wanted to be buried back in Mexico. Because Salvador had been infected with COVID-19, cremation was the only way he could be returned to Mexico.

Tony told Macias about the conversation. “Now you know what you have to do,” he told his nephew.

“It relieved a lot of pressure for me,” Macias said. “A lot of the family on my father’s side were looking to see what Tony would do. When my uncle gave that okay to me, that was enough to keep the rest of my family in line. The other patriarch was saying it’s okay to do it.” Even Macias’ mother, who was released from the hospital on Aug. 30, would give her approval when told of what Tony had said.  

The family instructed the mortuary to cremate Salvador, Macias said. They will return his remains to Zacatecas. And they will have a grand memorial for family and friends once his mother and brother have recovered.

In reflecting on the entire chain of events, Macias said he developed a greater respect for COVID-19 and hopes others have as well.

“If I could turn back the clock slightly, in reference to the COVID, I’d make sure all of the family understood what the virus was, and how to take care of themselves,” he said. “I have heard my brother still talking about wanting to go out to the beach and other places and, to me, it raises a flag because he’s supposed to be in isolation.

“We have to understand the severity of the situation. We have to remind ourselves that we have to take the precautions seriously. If you’re infected you can’t go outside…and put anyone else at risk. Don’t dismiss any ‘simple’ symptoms. It seems to be the hardest thing for people to understand, but this is a deadly virus.”

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