Dave Obee: Struggling to mourn after a friend’s death

“It is always difficult to experience loss; it is extremely difficult in these circumstances,” Health Minister Adrian Dix said in a Twitter message the other day. “We are with you.”

Dix was referring to a death from COVID-19, but his words could apply to many, many British Columbians, not just those who are dealing with a loss because of the coronavirus.

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Take, for example, my friend Gurdial Chumber, who died on Monday. He did not die because of COVID-19 — but it certainly made his final days worse, and has continued to cause pain to his family and friends.

Thousands of other British Columbians, your friends and neighbours who were not included in the daily health updates, felt the impact of COVID-19 in one way or another as their lives slipped away. And after they were gone, their family members, their friends and acquaintances, found they could not grieve the way they needed to.

This is the story of just one person, and one family. There are many, many more stories like this, one for everyone who has died since the middle of March.

Gurdial worked in local shipyards, and worked hard. His career choice came with a health risk, and he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, scarring in his lungs, in 2013.

He was being treated in hospital in March when the pandemic was declared and the order came to empty as many beds as possible. So Gurdial was sent home.

A couple of weeks ago, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and went back to hospital. Because of COVID-19, there were strict limits on the number of visitors who could see him.

It was touch and go at first; for a while they thought he could be gone within an hour. Then he recovered, and it seemed to be a miracle.

That gave a few of his family members a chance to laugh with him again, to tell him they loved him, and even make plans to fulfil his wish, and take him home.

But it didn’t last. After a couple of good days, his lungs simply gave out.

Our paths first crossed about five years ago. He was immediately so open with me that it always seemed that we had been best friends for years. He was a great story-teller and as I listened and laughed we were able to make up for lost time.

Gurdial had a fine sense of humour and loved to laugh. He enjoyed being surrounded by people, enjoyed entertaining, and had a deep appreciation for fine food and drink. His home was open to all, even me.

He was a responsible, ethical person. He had done well, and he was always ready to help those who needed a hand. He was generous.

He was not a tall man, but he was larger than life — life that he loved, life that he lived to its fullest. He set a high standard and he was an inspiration to all who met him.

Above all, Gurdial was passionately devoted to his wife Gurmit and his family.

In some ways, saying that I was a friend of Gurdial does not mean all that much; he was a friend to just about everyone he met. His social circle was huge.

Yet, thanks to COVID-19, only a handful of people could come together to pay their respects and say their goodbyes.

The last time I was in the big room at McCall Gardens, the one that officially holds 300 or so, it was standing room only. This time, with coronavirus safeguards pushing us apart, the room seemed almost empty.

It didn’t feel right. Gurdial was about people — lots of people.

But because of the pandemic, most of Gurdial’s friends, people he would have wanted to be there, had to stay away, even though seeing friends is usually a vital part of a family’s grieving process. With travel restrictions, his family members in England and India had to grieve from an extreme distance.

At least Gurdial’s family could hold the service right away. Others I know are still waiting, weeks after their loved ones passed, for a chance to pay their final respects. The insidious reach of COVID-19 extends well beyond those who contract the virus.

As Dix, our health minister, said, “it is always difficult to experience loss; it is extremely difficult in these circumstances.”

Absolutely true. So while Dix devotes his attention to COVID-19, as he should, the rest of us need to accept the new reality, that we can’t visit friends and relatives in seniors’ homes, we can’t gather around family members in their final hours, and we can’t gather by the hundreds, or even the dozens, to say goodbye.

The pain caused by the coronavirus is real and widespread.

Goodbye Gurdial, although in many ways you are still with us. We could do worse than to live up to your example.

dobee@timescolonist.com

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