'I thought he had a few more days, weeks even'

Grieving is the worst part of death, but it’s much harder when you don’t share it with anyone, says Sophia Michaluk.

As told to Sadaf Ahsan 6 minute read July 30, 2021

Eddy and Monique Michaluk. Supplied

On March 21, 2021, Sophia Michaluk lost her father Eddy after he came down with COVID-19 — one week before his vaccination was scheduled. Within three, he would succumb to the virus. Sophia found ways to cope with the loss, and how to rebuild – along with her mother, Monique — family, a career and a home.

It all feels so surreal because my father — the minute COVID-19 began — told us “If I catch this thing, I don’t think I’m gonna make it.”

In February 2021, he was a week away from getting vaccinated, and he got sick. There was an outbreak in my parents’ elderly residential building. Within a week, he was starting to feel ill, and I was calling every day to check in. One morning I called and my mother told me that she had to call 911 and the ambulance came to pick him up. My mother had also tested positive. Her apartment building went into lockdown — so for a while, I had both of my parents sick at the same time. I was going from checking in on my dad with medical staff to checking on my mother. She ultimately pulled through, but he was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) on March 1 and passed away on March 21. It all happened in three weeks — we didn’t see him until the day he died.

He had refused to be intubated, so the doctors planned to try other types of ventilation and treatment. They called us and asked that we get our family together so we could have a FaceTime call since we couldn’t be in the hospital. Everything was wrapped in plastic — we could hear the cracks and squeaks as it rubbed together. It was especially difficult because my mother wasn’t feeling well and I couldn’t help her set up the call, so it was just me and my sister. My father said, “I’m okay, I’m not feeling so bad. It’s hard to breathe.” He was sitting up most of the time, because he could not lay down.

Every two or three days, the medical staff would call me and tell me that he was stable and doing okay. It was confusing. On the very last day, when I spoke with a physician after he passed, I said, “This is so weird, because when we were looking at him, he seemed to be doing well, and that didn’t jive with his medical status.” She explained that he’d been deprived of oxygen for too long and at some point his organs were going to start failing. She said, “If you and I were below 95 per cent oxygen saturation, we wouldn’t last two days. He was, on average, at 70 per cent for three weeks.” The way COVID patients can go so long with oxygen deprivation is something they don’t really understand, even to this day.

Because we never got to see him in person during all that time, it was such a shock when he passed. We were in denial. When the physician called me, she said he was ready to go and “just wanted to be kept as comfortable as possible,” and those words didn’t get through to me right away — that it was the end, the final process. I didn’t realize that it meant he could go that day. I thought he had a few more days — weeks even. We spoke to him, and two or three hours later, it was all over. I don’t think I accepted that right away. And whenever I relive the experience, I’m always thinking, ‘if I had known, things could have been different, I could have done something’…but it’s not that I didn’t know, it’s that I didn’t admit the truth to myself.

In order to process it all, I have been speaking about what I’m feeling quite a lot with my husband and my sister, who I make a lot more time to spend with now than I did before. The grieving is the worst part of death, but it’s much harder when you don’t share it with anyone. And hugs are so important, too, with family. What’s also been incredibly therapeutic is helping my mother with my father’s will — she is the executor — and that makes me feel better and useful. It’s also taught me one great irony: it’s very complicated to die. There are so many steps to follow, from the funeral arrangements to all the financial details. It’s a lot of work, but it’s keeping my mind busy.

At the time of my father’s death, I was also still working. I took the week after off, and then took another weekend vacation, and then finally felt as if I was beginning to process everything. I had planned to retire sometime this year, but I never set a date, and all of a sudden, it felt like the right time. I wanted to be available for my mother and take charge. I had also just finished my certification for professional coaching, which is something that I wanted to do as a retired person because I didn’t want to work full time. I wanted to be in a position where I could drop everything and be there for my mother if she needed a ride or groceries or anything. I’ve learned that there isn’t a lot of time to spend with our loved ones, and if this is the price, I can afford to pay it.

Part of this new period has also been spent building my dream home with my husband in the Eastern Townships, just outside Montreal, with a team of designers and architects. It’s in the woods, it’s rustic, it’s beautiful. The pandemic has also shown us that there’s no point in living in the city if you can’t enjoy it. I had shared a lot of those plans with my father before he passed — I would show him the drawings, and he would say, “I wish I was younger so I could build this for you.” We had a close relationship, we shared so much, and he was always very generous in his point of view on everything. He was a very strong personality, and because I am the eldest, we crossed ways a lot growing up. But as I grew older, it became this mutually respectful relationship. So the house – the building of something new through this time – it all reminds me of him now in this beautiful way.

This story is a part of Healthing’s series on grief. To read other stories of loss and resilience during the pandemic, click here