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Staying Connected to Dying Loved Ones: 'Grief Opens a Door to the Enemy'

05-21-2020
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Headlines about Americans dying alone in hospitals during the pandemic come daily. It's heartbreaking for families who are prevented from saying goodbye as many hospitals maintain strict no visitor policies for COVID-19 patients and those at greatest risk of developing complications from the virus.

It's a scenario Janet and Laura Greenwald know well, although their nightmare came years before the pandemic began.

While at work in Los Angeles one day, the mother-daughter writing team got a call that their mother and grandmother Elaine Sullivan had suffered a stroke and was being treated in a Chicago hospital.

Knowing it would take time to book a flight and make it to her bedside, the women asked a nurse if they could talk to her over the phone.

"When we talked to her, her eyes snapped open and she regained consciousness, and the next morning by the time that we arrived she was sitting up and she didn't really know what had happened to her," Laura recalls during an interview with CBN News.

Laura's grandmother recovered and eventually grew excited about an upcoming vacation with friends.

Six days after her trip was scheduled to begin, Laura and her mother received another call from the hospital. This time Elaine was in intensive care.

"Come to find out that she had fallen in the bathtub getting ready to go on vacation and she hit her mouth and when she hit her mouth she wasn't able to communicate, but she was totally awake, but she couldn't speak for herself at all." 

By the time they received the phone call, six days had passed since Elaine was admitted and she was in critical condition.

It was Easter weekend, the Greenwald's were at their home in LA and again asked to speak to Elaine by phone.

"So we said, can you please put a phone to her ear?" Laura remembers.

This was before mobile phones were common and the nurse told them they would have to wait until morning when the staff could get a phone to her room in the ICU.

However, the phone call they received at 7:30 a.m. the next morning wasn't to set up a call with Elaine. It was the hospital calling to tell them she had died - alone.

Talking about it still brings Laura to tears.

"At that moment we needed not only to talk with her and be with her, even if it was only by phone - it would have been okay - we needed to pray with her. We needed to pray life into her and resurrection life into her and we couldn't," she says.

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In the days that followed, Laura and her mother learned Elaine ultimately passed away due to a drug interaction that could have been avoided if they had been notified and given a chance to advocate for her.

After doing research, the Greenwald's learned many states don't require hospitals to notify next-of-kin when their loved ones are hospitalized. So they set out on a mission and lobbied to get next-of-kin laws passed and enacted in Illinois and California.

The pain and frustration of their experience were so great they also wrote a self-help book for families titled Get Your Stuff Together: COVID-19 Edition. It's a book they've repackaged in light of the pandemic that's plaguing families desperate to be by the sides of their sick and dying loved ones.

The book is available for digital download and is chock-full of helpful tips for families trying to connect with their loved ones from afar.

The book offers downloadable forms people can send with their loved ones to the hospital so nurses and staff have all of their information in one place - forms they can post in their hospital rooms that include contact information for their loved ones.

"Put it on your loved one's chest if you need to. Make sure it goes there," Laura advises.

They also offer tips people may not think of in the heat of a health emergency, like sending a charger along with their loved one's phone.

"Doctors and nurses are exhausted right now and they're not going to want to take the time to look for somebody's phone number. The easier you make it to be connected with the people you love, the easier it's going to be for you to stay connected," Laura explains.

She says the closure families feel when they're connected to their loved ones is priceless. Not having it, she says, can cause years of grief and guilt that can be dangerous spiritually.

"Because I think the one thing about grief and loss is it opens a door to the enemy - we've found."

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