Losing a Loved One in A Pandemic Graphic

Although the cause of my uncle's death wasn’t COVID-19 and instead was a history of multiple heart and lung issues and constant dialysis treatments, the physical barrier of 6,523 miles between Athens, Georgia and Aleppo, Syria posed a heartbreaking realization.

I haven’t seen my uncle in 10 years, and now, I will never be able to see him again.

Loss — it’s a word that we all have become accustomed to in the past year: loss of human touch and interaction, routine, freedom, opportunities and dreams. Yet the extensive loss of human life is a concept that we are still processing and learning to cope with.

At the start of the pandemic in January, I remember consistently refreshing the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 cases map. I’d feel my stomach drop when the number of deaths skyrocketed and red dots across the map grew in size and frequency, indicating greater severity.

Over a year later, 546,144 people have died in the United States from COVID-19 as of Sunday March 28, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That stunning six-figure number has become ingrained into our daily lives, plastered on television and phone screens and articulated in conversations.

For some people this year, losing a family member has been one of the most difficult and unrestrained experiences. You can never prepare yourself for the emptiness — the hole in your heart once filled with the joy that loved one brought you — and the pain of learning to live with it and carry on in everyday life.

Physical barriers

On March 14, 2021, my uncle Osama Kalaji died at 59 years old in Aleppo, Syria, where the majority of my family is from. Before my uncle Osama unexpectedly passed away in his sleep, he just finished the final Islamic prayer of the day, Isha.

Osama photo

Osama Kalaji passed away at 59 years old in Aleppo Syria. He was a faithful Muslim, father, brother and uncle to Dania Kalaji. (Photo Courtesy/ Dania Kalaji)

As a devout Muslim, he committed his life to family through his unshakeable faith with Allah. A factory manager living through the horrors of a country plagued by war, he still made time to pray five times each day.

Although the cause of his death wasn’t COVID-19 — he had a history of multiple heart and lung issues and constant dialysis treatments — the physical barrier of 6,523 miles between Athens and Aleppo posed a heartbreaking realization.

My father lost an older brother and didn’t get the chance to say goodbye or tell him he loved him for the last time — because of a pandemic.

I find myself searching through the faint memories in my brain to sketch out the wrinkles and details of his face, but I fail every time. It was too long ago for an 11-year-old brain to remember.

Coming from a complete Syrian background on both sides of my family, I call Aleppo my second home. Every summer until 2011, my family and I lived in an apartment with unstable electricity for one month to visit the countless family members who still reside there.

Some of my fondest childhood memories took place in the Syrian streets that are now bloodshed and rubbled. Family dinner tables filled with Arabic delicacies and shared laughter are no longer forecasted in the future.

In March 2011, pro-democracy uprisings against the current President of Syria Bashar al-Assad instigated violence that would erupt nationwide and persist in a civil war with hundreds of rebel groups fighting for their freedom.

A civil war and failing humanitarian situation has placed Syria in an especially vulnerable position in the past year. The CDC advised against traveling to Syria, as it is in level four, meaning the chances of transmitting and spreading COVID-19 are at the highest degree.

Passage into the country is also difficult — almost impossible due to government watch and protection.

As I sit here in Athens, I know the odds are against me of ever returning to my second home. The possibility of danger I would put myself in, as well as the fear of the virus, leads to an unbearable feeling of defeat.

The grief of unexpected death

There are ways and steps of action to cope with this grief and sorrow, even under restrictions and the constant inundation of COVID-19 news. Personally, the grieving process has been full of guilt, tears, a loss of motivation and too many instances of hearing “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

My mental health plummeted and as a college student, I had to persevere, just as I did last year during the onset of the pandemic. Only one out of five of my professors excused me from class, and no sympathies were extended.

Assignments, classes and projects don’t stop — even when your whole world does.

In November 2020, Governor Kemp declared that Georgia would use around $11.5 million of the funding from the CARES Act to support mental health services during the pandemic within the University System of Georgia. However, the University of Georgia has yet to provide resources for struggling and grieving students who have lost family members or friends from COVID-19.

Although the initial pain of grief can be intolerable for some people, there are steps to recovery. Observing, naming and acknowledging the feelings that come with human loss can be difficult, but it can help with coming face-to-face with the pain. Practicing breathing, self-compassion and engaging in self-care are key assets to the process, according to University of Chicago Medicine.

It’s important to take care of oneself by practicing healthy habits such as taking socially distanced walks, journaling, taking baths or watching comfort movies and shows. Turning to others and reaching out for support during grief can be just as helpful.

What I’ve found most obliging is staying connected to family and friends who best knew my uncle. Sharing alike memories has allowed me to celebrate the life he led and recognize the positive impact he had on so many people.

Some days, I stare too long at Osama’s contact on WhatsApp, wishing I had reached out more often to check on him and our family. But as I peacefully reminisce, I can cherish the lingering scent of cigars my uncle carried, the same wrinkled white shirt he wore everyday and his roaring laugh that could ignite a room.

If there’s one thing Osama’s death taught me, it’s the power of human connection, even through a war, pandemic and death.