CORONAVIRUS

The Spanish woman who lost her aunt, dad and father-in-law in just 15 days

Gracia Méndez went to the same funeral home three times to mourn for family members who she believes died from the coronavirus, although none of the victims were tested for the disease

Gracia Méndez, who lost three family members in the space of 15 days.
Gracia Méndez, who lost three family members in the space of 15 days.José Manuel Pedrosa

The two words left her overcome. “You again…” They were uttered with shock by an employee at a funeral home who saw her arrive at her father’s house. Her again. Another death. The third in two weeks. Another member of her family. First it was her aunt, in a residence. Then her father-in-law, in his home. And then finally her dad. The “same virus,” Gracia Méndez explains, struck in the worst way possible in March, although she’ll never know for sure if it was Covid-19, because none of her relatives were tested. While the whole of Spain was confined in their homes, she had to go to the same funeral home three times, finding it “full of bodies but empty of mourners.”

Gracia, 52, is the only one of her six siblings who lives in the city of Jaén, where her father and aunt also lived. Communication during the lockdown was made by phone, given that there was no alternative. As such, she had to bear the burden of the conversations with doctors. Until the end came. Three of her siblings were able to accompany her in the funeral home when their aunt died. Another two arrived in time to share their father’s final hours. They still haven’t found the strength to collect the ashes. They will do so in July, when they can all see each other and process the three tragedies that have befallen them all of a sudden.

One day he woke up with fever and a cough, and four days later he died
Gracia Méndez, psychologist who lost three family members

Everything started the week before the state of alarm was declared in Spain, in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus. When the government was preparing to lock down the entire country, to protect the population from infection, the virus had already arrived in Gracia’s life. Her aunt Rosario was “as tough as old boots.” She’d been in a residence since 2009, when she had an accident and could no longer take care of herself. Her condition had worsened in recent times. “She was doubled over, she had constant tremors due to Parkinsons, but in her head she was completely lucid,” she explains. Gracia, a psychologist, who works in a high school, would go and see her every week.

It all happened in a matter of days. “They told me she was very sick,” Gracia explains, adding that her aunt was cared for at all times by the staff, something that leaves her “in peace.” She had to make one of the most difficult decisions of her life. With her father isolated at home on doctor’s orders, on March 15 she was given the option to go and say goodby to Rosario. It was the end. But, she thought, what will happen to her father? What if he catches the virus? “With a very heavy heart, I decided not to go,” she explains. She couldn’t risk another tragedy. When she called to explain, she was told her aunt had just passed away – it happened that quickly. “On her death certificate they put cardiorespiratory arrest, but they recorded it as if it were Covid-19,” she explains. “They told me they would tell the funeral home that she had died due to a respiratory issue. They never did the test. There weren’t any tests at that point.”

“They didn’t let us all into the funeral home, we could only be there for a short time,” she explains. “Three siblings came from Marbella, Seville and Ciudad Real. The rest live in Madrid, and things were really bad for them to be able to come.”

They told me directly, ‘Your father has the coronavirus’
Gracia Méndez, psychologist who lost three family members

Six days later it was her father-in-law’s turn. “It was very similar to my aunt, just that he was at home. One day he woke up with fever and a cough, and four days later he died. The cause? Cardiorespiratory arrest due to his age, but for me it was coronavirus. After that my in-laws got sick too. They had fever, muscular pain… They stayed in quarantine.” Her father-in-law was 96, and slept beside his wife until the night before. “They sent him treatment for pneumonia,” she explains. “When he got worse and the situation was very serious, the family decided that the end was here. He received palliative care.”

The situation with her father then began to worry her. He was 94 and completely dependent, after a number of strokes. He did not speak, “apart from with his looks.” He had lost his wife a year before. “I think he was aware of everything,” Gracia explains. She would go and see him every day. He lived with a carer, who would move him with a lift. “On the 13th, she called me concerned saying that he couldn’t swallow,” she says. “I went to the doctor’s surgery and asked the doctor to go and see him. But my father would get pneumonia very easily, it wasn’t the first time.” Gracia tried to space out her visits, and not approach her father when she was there. “But one day [the carer] told me, ‘You’re father is fading away.’ I told her that I knew.”

When she called for an ambulance, the crew turned up in full hazmat gear, “like you see on the TV. They told me directly, ‘Your father has the coronavirus’.” She asked for tests for them both, but was told that there weren’t any. “We had the option of going to the hospital, but we couldn’t be with him there. I called my siblings. We decided that he should stay at home. Two of them were able to come and to be with him.” They left Don Quintín with an oxygen tank, with which he spent his last two days.

She was at home, and couldn’t sleep that night. At 7am the telephone rang. “I ran to the car,” she says. “I couldn’t breathe. I decided I wanted to see the funeral home take my father away.” She got there in time, and was able to see the doctors sign the death certificate. “Possible Covid-19.” Before she went into the house, she saw the same employee. “You again.” “I’ll never forget that scene,” she says. “I went to pieces.” She was carrying the weight of three deaths and three bereavements.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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