Our Lives Have Changed: Saying goodbye from a phone screen

Jan 27, 2021

Joanie (left) and Julia (right) remained close even when they lived four hours apart.
Credit courtesy of Julia Chambers

Last spring, Julia Chambers, of Walhalla, was desperate to find out if her sister Joanie was okay. 

Joanie lived in a nursing home outside of Detroit, and COVID cases had just been detected at the facility.

Her niece went to go see Joanie through the window of the nursing home. 

“They were both crying. She sent me a picture of her,” Julia says.

After that, she was living by her phone, waiting for the call to come informing her that Joanie had COVID.

Sisters joined at the hip

At the time, Joanie was an upbeat 66-year-old who had special needs. Her glasses were usually dirty and she wore bright red clothes and gold jewelry. At the nursing home, you’d find her chatting up her neighbors and playing her favorite card games.

“She would have a smile on her face most of the time,” Julia says. “You could just tell that she was a sweet person.”

Joanie was living with dementia and her COPD, a chronic inflammatory lung disease, had worsened.

 

She’d always needed a little help. Growing up, Joanie spoke quickly with a nasally voice, so Julia would step in.

“People had a hard time understanding her so I was her interpreter and we hung out a lot,” she says.

As they got older, they stayed close. In high school, and later on, the sisters would often go out dancing together.

Not they way they hoped

Six years ago, Joanie had a close call when her COPD got really bad. Doctors put her on a ventilator and told the family to say their goodbyes.

Joanie pulled through, in part, because of her strong Catholic faith, according to Julia.

“The doctor said it was a miracle,” she says.

But in April last year, as COVID was running rampant through nursing homes across the country, affecting the most vulnerable, Joanie fell victim to the virus.

Within two days of the diagnosis she was on the ventilator. This time, there was little hope of her recovery.

“When she was really bad before we were right there with her the whole time,” Julia says. She had to say goodbye to her sister by phone in April. 

Still, she says if Joanie had lived it would have been agonizing for her to get through these last few months of isolation.

“It would be bad if she did survive,” Julia says. “Not being able to be around people. Her family’s very important to her, her grandkids.”

Letting go from a distance

Kathryn Christain, a chaplain at Munson Medical Center, says grieving is harder with COVID.

“Often there was a ventilator involved,” she says. “Then there’s a certain distance required with masking and gown and gloves.”

Christain says she works with families to let go of feelings of guilt and helplessness. She helps them concentrate on the love they had for their relative.

Almost a year after Joanie’s passing, Julia is still working to get past her last images of her sister on the ventilator.

She tries to focus on the good life Joanie lived. Her close friends. The love she had for her children and grandchildren.

Julia says the family wasn’t able to have a service last year—they didn’t want to risk spreading the virus that killed Joannie. 

She hopes this spring or summer, they’ll be able to celebrate the life of her beloved sister together.

Find more stories in our series “Our Lives Have Changed” on our website interlochenpublicradio.org.