They filed into the chapel Thursday carrying gifts – a beloved book, some tissue paper, a makeup case – all destined for the grave.
“Oh mom,” said Michelle Lampert, upon seeing her mother’s recently embalmed body. “I love you so much.”
The five of them huddled around LaVonne Young and said their goodbyes to the 75-year-old mother of two, grandmother to eight and great-grandmother to five.
For the Lamperts, it was the closest they’re getting to a funeral or any of the other normal rituals of grief.
And it was closer than most of them were able to get to the beloved matriarch of a large affectionate family before she died.
Among its countless victims and disruptions, the coronavirus has upended how we grieve.
Restrictions on gatherings have made funerals and memorial services impossible. Strict hospital rules often mean people die alone, or accompanied by only one shell-shocked family member.
“It kills you. It kills you,” said Dino Lampert, Michelle’s husband. “You can’t go and say goodbye to your loved one.”
The rules and regulations are difficult to bear, but public health officials say they are warranted. On Wednesday, the Center for Disease Control published a case study finding that 16 people were infected with the novel coronavirus after attending a Chicago-area funeral. Three of them died.
But those facts and figures don’t blunt the grief – and anger – of those denied one last visit.
“It’s just a struggle all the way around for families,” said Sonja Dove, a grief counselor for Hospice of North Idaho.
A 1% chance
On the final day of March, Michelle Lampert drove to her mother’s home off Atlas Road in Coeur d’Alene, arriving around 7:45 a.m. to pick LaVonne Young up for one last chemotherapy appointment.
Young had been diagnosed with uterine cancer in November, but treatments were going well. Prior to the diagnosis, she’d never been to a hospital, Lampert said.
But when Lampert arrived, something was wrong. The shades were drawn, and her mother wasn’t answering the door.
Lampert let herself in and found her mother unconscious and barely breathing in the bedroom.
Distraught, Lampert called 911. An ambulance arrived, loaded her mother up. Paramedics wouldn’t let Lampert ride along out of fears of the virus. They told a sobbing Lampert not to drive.
Lampert, who works in medical billing, is no stranger to big medicine’s sometimes icy and impersonal veneer. But what happened next went far beyond run-of-the-mill bureaucratic chilliness.
A friend drove her to Kootenai Health medical center. At first, Michelle wasn’t allowed past the front desk. She sat bawling and alone.
“Nobody came near me,” she recalled. “Nobody from the front desk would come near me.”
After about 10 minutes, which felt much longer, they allowed her back into the emergency room. LaVonne had a massive aneurism. She had a 1% chance of living, doctors estimated, and she had a do-not-resuscitate order.
Lampert is direct and no stranger to grief and loss. One of her daughters, Samantha, died from cancer at age 3. Her father died about a decade ago
She knew the only reasonable course of action was to take her mother off life support. It’s what LaVonne wanted.
They have a big family. Her brother, who lives in Boise, was racing to Coeur d’Alene hoping to see his mother one last time. Lampert’s children wanted to say goodbye to their nana.
And for Dino, Michelle’s husband, LaVonne was like a second mother.
But per Kootenai Health’s pandemic visitation rules, each patient is only allowed one visitor in a 24-hour time frame. Hospitals in Spokane and nationwide have implemented similar policies. Providence Health Care, for instance, doesn’t allow any visitors, though exceptions can be made for maternity, pediatric and end-of-life cases.
Lampert sat alone with her dying mother for nearly five hours. As Lampert sobbed, the attending doctor and nurse did “everything in their power to get someone back there with me.”
At one point, the nurse started crying, overwhelmed by the inhumanity of the situation.
Finally, at 1 p.m., the hospital allowed Dino, Lampert’s husband, to join her, which presented another heartbreaking dilemma.
Dino’s mother, Judith, was also at Kootenai Health, just down the hall from LaVonne. And she was also in bad shape, verging on death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. .
“They let me sit back there so I can be with my wife,” he said. “And then you watch your mom wheel by in the gurney and you can’t go see her.”
Dino’s mother died Thursday morning. He did not see her before she died. Instead, her sister called him from Judith’s bedside. He said his goodbye by phone.
“You can’t do the circle of life,” he said. “You can’t go say goodbye to your loved one.”
Deneen Davis has been a social worker with Hospice of North Idaho for nearly 15 years.
Tuesday through Fridays, she goes to the hospital and meets with men and women nearing death. She evaluates their situation and, depending on how long they have to live, admits them to the hospice house.
The house is designed to provide care for dying people for days or weeks. For those on the fringe of death – with only hours left – hospice house is not the answer.
“They have to have a reason to go,” Davis said.
There is the added risk that the person will die in transit, denying the family precious final minutes with their loved one. It’s better for all involved to keep the dying person in the hospital.
Under normal circumstances, this is how LaVonne Young would have died.
“Usually, she would have just died in the emergency room and they would have let family come in,” Davis said. “Whoever needed to be there. To come in and say goodbye.”
But nothing is normal and the hospital already bent its rules by letting Dino in. There was no way they would let the entire family in. Realizing this dilemma, someone at Kootenai Health – the family isn’t sure who – came up with the idea of sending LaVonne to hospice.
Hospice of North Idaho Hospice’s pandemic visitation rules aren’t as strict as Kootenai’s – they allow two people in at a time – but they’re still restrictive. So instead, the idea went, why not have the family say goodbye to LaVonne as the EMTs rolled her into hospice?
“It was such an unusual thing for me to do,” Davis said.
But she agreed and LaVonne Young went for one final ambulance ride. Her family gathered at North Idaho Hospice and, as she was wheeled in, said their goodbyes standing in a cold parking lot.
The EMTs didn’t rush them.
“The situation was horrific,” Lampert said. “I don’t think anyone was going to rush us at that point.”
Anger in grief
Grief is a complex tangle of emotions, blending sadness, love, anger and even joy, all together.
A sudden, unexpected death makes it harder to navigate these feelings, Dove said. Known in hospice lingo as a “complicated loss,” survivors of such a death have “to work just a little harder trying to get hold of what’s happening.”
Add visitation restrictions and group gathering bans on top of that and a “complicated loss” quickly turns a bad situation into an awful one.
“I’ve talked to families who have had to cancel memorials,” she said. “Which has, as you can imagine, deeply impacted their grief. I think there is a level of anger and hurt that comes with that.”
Plus, grief is, by its very nature, an isolating experience. Having someone to grieve with, to be in companionship with, is important, Dove said.
Not being able to gather – whether beside a hospital bed or a grave – only slows the healing process.
“Anger is a natural emotion in grief anyways,” Dove said. “But when something else over the top of what has already been taken away is amplifying that, there is even more to be angry about.”
On Thursday, sitting at Yates Funeral Home in Coeur d’Alene, Dino Lampert is grieving. His mother died just hours before. His wife’s mother the week prior, her body lying in the room next door.
“This whole fear of the coronavirus, to me, is blown way out of proportion,” he said. “You think about the swine flu that happened in 2009 and 2010 – nothing was ever said about it. Now you have families that are losing members and they’re dying by themselves. It’s stupid.”
The family gathers in the funeral home. Sean Young, LaVonne’s brother, is there from Boise. He made it in time to see his mom before they pulled the ventilator last week. Two of Michelle’s sons and her daughter arrive. Five all told.
They file in, sobbing at the sight of LaVonne in the casket but also joking about the banal details of death. The $10,000 mortician fees and how LaVonne’s lipstick was the wrong color (she normally wore purple-hued lipstick)..
They place their gifts into her casket: the tissue and makeup kit, because LaVonne never went anywhere with out those two items, and the book “Guess How Much I Love You,” because it was one of 3-year-old Samantha’s favorite books.
They spend a moment standing in the nearly empty room.
Back in the lobby, funeral director Eli Yates meets with the family. He will be driving LaVonne’s body to Boise, where she will be buried near her husband and granddaughter.
Even during those final moments, the family will have to stay far from the graveside. Only once the casket has been buried and cemetery workers have dispersed will they be allowed to approach.
They can, Michelle Lampert said, have a proper graveside service in six months, or whenever the viral threat has subsided.
“Who wants to do that? I don’t,” she said. “You’re already grieving once. Who wants to go over it again and again and again?”
For now, they’re left with the small kindnesses.
The parking lot goodbye. The hospital rule bending and hospice’s quick thinking. The fact that Yates will play Van Morrison and the Black Keys, some of LaVonne’s favorite music, as he drives the body to Boise. The fact that he will do what he can to convince the Boise cemetery to bend its own rules and let the family down to the grave as LaVonne is buried.
“There are not many kind things out of this whole experience,” Lampert tells Yates, standing in the funeral home’s waiting area. “So thank you.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.