PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Holly Susi has engaged in what seems like a never-ending battle with COVID-19.
First, her mother, who was 86, contracted the disease.Then her father. And then she got it – followed by her husband, her brother and his wife.
When her mother, Janet Gingras, died Sunday, all Susi wanted was to gather her family for a proper send-off. She was stunned when she read that only five people could attend an outdoor burial, so she penned a letter to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to express her dismay.
“People can shop at Target, get their hair cut at a salon, eat indoors at restaurants but we cannot have a socially distanced burial outdoors for my mother? Her seven grandchildren cannot attend? Her older great-grandchildren cannot say goodbye? How can this be?” she wrote. “It is not just not fair. It disrespects my mother who has already suffered so much and inflicts yet another pain on her family.“
COVID-19 has inflicted one blow after another on Susi and her family these past two months.
Her mother had a pulmonary embolism in late October. After she was released from the hospital, she came down with a cold, then chills. Soon, her father, Richard, who is 89, began feeling achy and feverish.
By week’s end, Susi knew they both had COVID-19.
A few days later, on Nov. 4, Susi called 911, and her parents were hospitalized.
Both developed pneumonia. Susi's mom originally improved – and she went to a rehabilitation center in Massachusetts because Rhode Island centers weren’t accepting COVID-19 patients – but then her condition worsened, and she was rushed to a hospital once again, Susi said.
“My mom was really, really ill,” Susi said. “We had to decide to give her comfort measures and it was a heartbreaking decision.”
Related: What doctors want us to know about COVID-19
Both parents had been very clear: no ventilators, no extraordinary measures.
“She hadn’t been talking,” Susi said. “One day, she opened her eyes and said, 'Thank you, God, for answering my prayers.'"
Gingras had prayed to see her family one more time.
A week later, Janet was moved to Hope Hospice in Providence, where Susi spent every day by her side. She died Sunday.
Susi's father beat COVID-19. But he was sent to a rehab center in Massachusetts, where he was placed on a locked dementia ward. There, isolated and without human contact, he began to languish.
“Now he has hospital delirium,” Susi said. “I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy. I haven’t seen him since October. He doesn’t understand why he is there. I don’t know if he will ever come back.”
Susi said she has now lost both parents in different ways.
Opinion: Isolation kills, especially seniors. Community spaces can be a vaccine for COVID loneliness.
More: Michigan couple who did 'almost everything together' dies of COVID-19 at the same time
Meanwhile, the virus touched more family members: Susi’s husband, her nephew, her brother’s son and daughter and their two children.
“I am a rule follower,” Susi said. “I have kept a contact tracing notebook from mid-March. I have kept my bubble very small. This was the first Thanksgiving that it was just my husband and me. We have done everything that’s been asked."
“We know what COVID can do,” she continued. “So I said, ‘let’s do her burial outside.’"
Susi wanted to invite between 16 and 18 family members. Everyone would wear masks and stand apart. But she was told no.
Susi lives near a local restaurant in Providence, and says there are easily more than 18 people working there at any one time.
“I can have 150 people at...a big church and that’s 25% of capacity,” she said. “My family has been burdened on so many levels by COVID. To add to our grief, we can’t even do what we thought would be absolutely the best for our family."
The Rhode Island Department of Health said that churches, unlike outdoor burials, are structured: they are allowed to have 25% of capacity, with parishioners sitting six feet apart. The challenge with outdoor services is that this same structure is often not in place, said DOH spokesman Joseph Wendelken.
“Ensuring mask-wearing and social distancing is much more challenging, and not having a common entryway makes it more challenging to screen people for symptoms,” he wrote. “For this reason, during this period when we are seeing such high rates of transmission, tighter restrictions have been put in place for graveside funerals and other gatherings.”
Susi doesn’t buy it:
“This isn’t how we should be treating grieving families. The funeral and wake are for the living. We’re robbing people of the opportunity to celebrate a life, the opportunity to comfort one another."
Susi said Gingras was a spitfire. That’s what has propelled her to go public about this situation.
“She would be proud. She would have wanted to fight this. People desire the opportunity to lay their loved ones to rest surrounded by their family.”
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Rhode Island woman fights for mother's funeral amid COVID restrictions