COVID and its effects on poly relationships
Poly people struggling with acute grief and loss during the pandemic
Like everyone else, many poly people have lost family members and loved ones to COVID, and being in acute grief during this period of isolation has taken a toll on their mental health and their relationships. Others have lost loved ones to causes other than COVID, but COVID precautions have prevented them from traveling to be there for them in their final months, and in some cases even prevented them from having funerals. And with hospitals restricting or completely forbidding and visitors, many poly elders have felt even more helpless to help sick loved ones. Many of the precautions necessary to prevent the spread of COVID have made dying and mourning more painful and complicated.
Liliani is a 67-year-old attorney who lives in a cohousing community near Seattle, Washington. She emigrated from the Philippines to the US over 40 years ago when she met her husband, Mel, while he was stationed in Manila in the US Navy. Mel, now 78, is a retired navy captain. Liliani has also been in a relationship for nine years with William, a semi-retired psychotherapist, 73, who lives in their cohousing community, but has his own house a few doors from them. William’s wife died from ovarian cancer five years ago, and Liliani, Mel, and William took care of her during the last year of her life. William credits Liliani and Mel will helping him survive “the worst hell I have ever experienced, watching my beloved die a slow and painful death, and having to go on living without her.” He says, “They have been my family, and taken care of me physically, mentally, and emotionally through this terrible time.”
Liliani received a phone call in May of 2020 from her sister Luisa in the Philippines, telling her that their mother had contracted COVID and was in the hospital in Manila. Since airline travel was completely shut down, she could not fly to Manila to take care of her mother. And her sister explained that the hospital would not allow any visitors into the hospital due to the risk of spreading COVID. Her mother was 89, and had asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions, because she had been a farm worker all her life on a plantation in a rural area near Manila, and had been exposed to lots of pesticides on the job. Her doctor said she was not likely to survive the virus. Liliani was distraught, but her only option was to set up video visits with her mother on her laptop, and the nurses set a laptop up on her mother’s hospital bed so she could see and talk with her daughter.
Liliana was so upset that she became irrational, repeatedly insisting to Mel and William that they must help her find a way to get to Manila to see her mother. She was searching the Internet for how to get a ticket on a ship crossing the Pacific Ocean from Seattle to Manila, and even researching chartering a private plane, which she knew they could never afford. Mel and William gently kept reminding her that even if she somehow could get there, which seemed impossible, she would not be allowed into the hospital to see her mother.
A few days later, after a week in the hospital, Liliana’s mother passed away, peacefully, in her sleep. Liliana fell apart, sobbing uncontrollably, unable to eat or sleep for days. Mel and William took turns sitting with her around the clock, trying to comfort her, giving her back rubs and foot massages, bringing her tea and coaxing her to eat ice cream and other snacks, and, eventually, a few meals. Their co-owners and neighbors in the cohousing community brought over casseroles and soups, and dropped off cards on their doorstep. Their friends from the Seattle poly community were constantly calling, texting, sending cards and flowers.
William made numerous calls to Luisa in Manila and put the calls on speakerphone, so he could assist the sisters in making funeral arrangements. William tried to insist on paying all the burial expenses, knowing that Lilani’s family back home was struggling to get by on a very low income. Mel said he and Liliani would cover those expenses, and that the family would be insulted if he insisted on paying for the funeral. Instead he suggested that William send flowers to Luisa and her family, with a note explaining that the flowers were from Liliani, Mel, and William. That made him feel he was a family member and he felt good about doing this for them. He sent flowers several times during the first few months after Liliani’s mother’s death. He also sent special food baskets that he ordered on-line, with cheese, sausages, cookies, and fruit. Liliani’s family members were very touched by these gestures. Luisa admitted to Liliani, “I don’t understand your strange relationship with these two men,” but she appreciated the loving support that both Mel and William provided to the whole family.
By July, Liliani was starting to feel much better, still in acute grief but able to start working again, first part-time, and then full-time by July. She had been running her law practice out of her home since the pandemic started in March, but stopped working completely when her mother got sick as she could not concentrate. Luckily for her, most of the courts were closed during the same period when she was so distraught with grief that she could not work, so she was able to catch up on her cases when she was feeling better, and get the documents filed in court on time. Her polycule, her cohousing community, and the larger poly community all showed up for Liliani during her mother’s illness and after her death.
William, Mel, and Lilani were able to get vaccinated in April 2021, and started seeing friends and having dinners with their cohousing community again. When the borders reopened in May and air travel between the US and the Philipines resumed, Liliani was able to fly to Manila to see her family. Because her mother died at the height of a COVID surge in the Philippines, they were only allowed to have a very small funeral with the immediate family members at the graveside for the burial. During Liliani’s visit, they were able to have a Catholic funeral with the entire extended family. This was extremely comforting to Liliana and helped her move forward in her grieving process. Both William and Mel decided to stay in Seattle, as both have pre-existing health problems and felt it would not be safe for them to travel overseas. Liliana understood, and because she was surrounded by her family the entire time, she was not lonely or resentful about their absence.
COVID has had a profound effect on everyone’s lives, and poly people certainly are no exception. This has created some unique challenges with poly relationships, such as not being able to see long-distance lovers and having to make tough decisions about whether to see partners who do not live in their household. Some have faced the challenge of helping adult children that have lost their jobs and/or housing due to the pandemic. On the positive side, poly elders have had additional support and resources because of their poly partners, who have come through for them with financial help, caregiving, and emotional support during the pandemic.