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Painful parting: Layers of plastic separate woman from mom who died from COVID-19 in Japan


TOKYO -- After losing her 90-year-old mother to COVID-19 on Jan. 18, a woman from the east Japan prefecture of Kanagawa, south of Tokyo, has spoken to the Mainichi Shimbun about the painful parting that left her bidding her mother farewell, right before she was loaded onto a hearse, through two layers of plastic.

    The 55-year-old woman's mother had been encased in blue and clear plastic bags. She was still wearing the same clothes she had on when she was admitted to the hospital three days prior, and no funeral makeup had been applied on her. She had a gaping mouth. The woman wondered if her mother would be able to make it to the afterlife in such a wretched state. Unable to contain her sorrow, the woman's sister tried to touch their mother in spite of herself. A staffer stopped her bluntly: "You can't do that."

    The woman's mother had been living in a rest home where the woman previously worked from about a year ago. In early January, a cluster of coronavirus infections broke out at the group home after a worker there was found to have contracted it. The woman's mother was infected on Jan. 15, and was transported to a hospital by emergency services.

    Shortly before her mother was taken to the hospital, the woman received a phone call from the rest home. Staff wanted to confirm if she wanted life-sustaining treatment to be provided to her mother, since the hospital would take different measures depending on the family's wishes. The woman immediately consulted her sister, and called the home back to say that they wanted to avoid life-sustaining therapies to avoid putting their mother in pain or discomfort.

    Tests conducted at the hospital showed that the woman's mother had had a stroke, but she was still conscious and her condition was improving. However, she took a sudden turn for the worse on Jan. 18, and the woman was informed that her mother was in critical condition. The woman quickly headed for the hospital, but on the way, she got a call informing her that her mother had passed. She pulled her car over on the side of the road and cried.

    When she finally arrived at the hospital, she was taken to a temporary prefab wing allotted for COVID-19 patients, where she was handed an iPad. She confirmed from footage shown on the iPad that her mother had indeed died. The doctor told her that the cause of her mother's death was the coronavirus.

    A little while later, her mother's body was brought out. The woman was shocked at how different the end of her mother's life was from that of her father and another older sister she had, both of whom had died in quick succession in the past several years. "I wonder if my dad and big sister would recognize Mom in heaven?" she wondered. The woman understood that the measures taken could not be avoided due to the pandemic. But being forced to send off her mother -- who had raised her with so much love -- in this way, she couldn't help but apologize to her in her heart.

    Even as this was going on, emergency vehicles were quietly bringing patients into the prefab wing of the hospital. That was when it hit her that an explosion of infections really was taking place. The woman confirmed anew the terrifying power of the coronavirus.

    The woman's mother had always spoken with a calm, gentle voice. Putting her voice to use, for a long time she engaged in volunteer work that entailed recording herself reading books and sending them to people with leprosy. The woman remembers her mother's voice reverberating throughout the quiet house at night when she was a young girl. Her mother was a member of a choir until she was 84 years old, and was also an ink brush painter. "She was brimming with talent," the woman recalled.

    After the woman's father died three years ago, her mother went to live in the rest home. When the woman, who worked there, nodded off on the sofa after a night shift, her mother would gently put a blanket on her. But recently, her mother had been struggling with dementia, and was at times emotionally unstable due to the side effects of the medication she was on. Last December, her mother dumped all the clothes that the woman had brought to her as a present on the floor. In the heat of the moment, the woman told her mother, "I'm never coming here again." Shortly afterward, the woman resigned from her job at the rest home. She never imagined that that fight would be the last interaction she would have with her mother.

    When her father and her sister died, the woman was able to distract herself with preparations for their respective funerals. But with her mother's death, the only ceremonial tradition that will be carried out is gathering up her mother's ashes after she is cremated, a week later. The woman is overcome by grief, but has promised her mother, "I will honor your soul with care."

    The number of people who have died from the coronavirus nationwide increased by 83 on Jan. 23, to reach a total of 5,077. Of these, 2,912, or close to 60%, occurred from the time the third wave of the coronavirus began to escalate in December 2020. The number of patients with severe cases of the disease are still rising, meaning the number of deaths could grow at an accelerated pace.

    (Japanese original by Mei Nammo, City News Department)

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