My Mom Died while I was Covering Covid. It Changed my Views on Grief.

Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu
Washington Post reporter Lena Sun looks through boxes full of her late mother’s photographs at her home in Maryland.

Three years ago, I was sitting on the floor of my mother’s study, overwhelmed by the task of cleaning out her apartment. Her life surrounded me: volumes of fiction in English and Chinese stuffed the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Reams of correspondence weighed down her desk drawers. On the floor lay stacks of cloth-covered photo albums that traced the arc of her journey from Taiwan to the United States.

It was spring 2020. The United States was in its first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Fear of infection infiltrated every aspect of life. Lockdowns around the country shuttered schools, restaurants, offices. My mom’s retirement complex in suburban Maryland limited visitors. Each morning as I arrived, staff in masks and gloves aimed a no-touch thermometer at my forehead before letting me through.

That April, the United States became the country with the most reported covid-19 cases and deaths, surpassing Italy and Spain as the global hot spot for the virus. By month’s end, my mother was one of more than 62,000 people who had died of covid-19. More than 2,000 Americans were dying each day. Now, three years later, the U.S. death toll stands at more than 1 million. We were a nation awash in grief, an experience of loss that was, at once, personal and collective, an experience that forced us to find new ways to mourn – and to carry on.

Like hundreds of thousands of others at the time, I was on bereavement leave. I was also one of the reporters leading covid coverage for The Washington Post. That put me in the unwished-for position of covering the virus that infected and all too quickly killed my 90-year-old mother. The day after my mother died, I called a CDC source to find out the safest way to be in her now-empty apartment. Crack open the windows to get good ventilation, he said. The virus does not survive long on surfaces like table tops or bedding, he reassured me. His kindness prompted a flood of tears; his practical advice gave me peace of mind.

I felt as though I were living a split-screen existence – with covid providing an unsettling collision of my personal and work worlds. One moment, the familiar scent of her face cream instantly evoked memories of her hugging me. The next, I was walking around her apartment, searching for better cell reception to talk with a colleague reporting on the tensions surrounding covid policy.

Confusion and panic were rampant. Many thought an infected person could expel droplets through mouths and noses and contaminate table tops, bedding and mail – spreading the virus to anyone who touched the surface. People wiped down groceries. Some even went so far as to sanitize each egg in the carton.

In the weeks before her death, I worried that my mother’s retirement complex was not taking sufficient precautions to control transmission. I printed out handwashing instructions – “Please wash hands long enough to sing happy birthday twice!” – and taped them all over her building.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after initially demurring on masks, had sent internal memos to the White House in late March urging the Trump administration to recommend Americans cover our faces. But the White House balked. When President Donald Trump finally announced the guidance, urging everyone to wear masks outside the home, he immediately undermined the message by refusing to wear one.

If clear and unequivocal mask guidance had been released earlier, the public may have more readily followed it. My mother’s caregivers may have protected themselves – and her – sooner. My mom may have survived.

After talking to experts and reading about loss to help me cope, I’m understanding that grief – the intense emotion that often manifests in physical pain and feels overwhelming in the moment – can hit again and again. It’s with you forever. But grief is different from grieving – how we learn to navigate life without our loved one. Social isolation and the sheer quantity of deaths during the pandemic made this process even harder.

Fear of infection and strict protocols meant no family members were able to be at my mom’s bedside to hold her hand as she drew her final breaths, or give her one last hug. There was no memorial service.

Not being able to say goodbye, express love, gratitude or forgiveness, and not having the memory of seeing a loved one’s physical decline and death, complicates the grieving process, said Mary-Frances O’Connor, a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona who studies how the brain reacts to grief.

Memorials make death real, she told me. “For the surviving family or friends, it marks in time that this happened, this important person is gone,” O’Connor said.

To the Chinese-speaking world, my mother was Yu Lihua, a celebrated writer who published more than two dozen novels, short story collections and essays capturing Chinese immigrant life in the United States. Within 24 hours of her death, my phone was pinging with texts from Chinese media reporters asking for details and plans for a memorial.

To her retirement community, she was Lihua, the barely 5-foot-tall exercise lover who played tennis well into her 80s and speed-walked – backward! – around the retirement complex grounds to improve her balance.

To me, she was just mom. A complicated person.

I tried to make up for the absence of a memorial by witnessing her cremation. It was important for someone to be physically present to bid her farewell, or gao bie, in Chinese, my Uncle Henry, my mom’s third youngest brother, told me. On Mother’s Day, I stood alone outside the funeral home’s crematorium. I placed flowers and goodbye letters from my brother and sister on her casket. I read a short farewell that the funeral director recorded on my phone to share with my family.

The roar of the crematorium in the background nearly drowns out my voice.

Not knowing when – or if – we would have a celebration of her life made it harder to know what to pack up into storage. It took me 13 full days of organizing, sorting and discarding.

Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu
Sun keeps an altar that includes photos of her late sister and her late mother, along with other family photos.

My younger sister Anna had offered to drive from her Vermont home to Maryland to help. But the pandemic made logistics too difficult. We agreed she would come later to go through Mom’s personal papers, the novels and short stories we were planning to get translated into English, and the photo albums.

My sister’s relationship with our mother was complicated. Anna was raised for the first five years of her life in Taiwan by our maternal grandmother because Mom was struggling to juggle her career and caring for three young kids. Not surprisingly, my sister had conflicted feelings about her childhood. As a little girl, she would often sit under my mom’s blue formica desk to be close to her while she wrote. The most creative of the three of us children, my sister, an aspiring writer, became the keeper of family memories.

In 2021, after the first anniversary of Mom’s death, my sister came to Maryland and arranged for dozens of boxes I had packed with Mom’s things – including the photo albums – to be trucked from the storage facility to Vermont.

In September 2021, with covid cases surging again amid the highly transmissible delta variant, the country had the closest thing to a national remembrance. Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg blanketed the National Mall with an installation of 700,000 white flags, each representing an American who died in the pandemic. On one of those flags is a photo I pasted of my mom alongside a tiny picture of her best-known novel. Written in Chinese, “Again the Palm Trees” is about a Taiwan university graduate who goes to the United States and ends up disappointed by life.

There was no letup in the pandemic – or work. Diving back into covid reporting distracted me from grief.

Outside of work, I tried to deepen connections with family and friends, make new friends, go on hikes, read poetry, cook and bake – activities, O’Connor would tell me, that helped me cope with loss. I began to feel normal again. I also felt guilty that I was moving on.

Most people mistakenly believe grief is the only way to demonstrate deep love for those close to us who have died, O’Connor told me. What they don’t realize, she said, is that resilience – the ability to go through a potentially traumatic event without falling apart – is actually the most common response to a loss. That has been true even during the pandemic.

Our mother’s passing was actually something of a relief for me because her dementia had been growing worse. It terrified her that she could no longer write, robbing her of her one true passion.

The grieving process was harder for my sister. She was more immersed in our mother’s past, reading Mom’s works and going through mountains of photos.

Last summer, Anna was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer.

Navigating the byzantine thicket of her medical care was another full-time job. My niece and nephew coordinated updates on her condition and the friends army that provided round-the-clock support. I shifted into health-reporter mode when it was my turn to be with her at the hospital. I peppered everyone who walked into her room with questions, took notes, recorded doctors’ explanations. My younger brother, Eugene, an infectious-disease doctor, helped us unpack the dense medical jargon and get to the bottom line: Her tumor could not be surgically removed. Chemotherapy was unlikely to work. She would not have long to live.

Two months later, on Oct. 15, she died. Unlike our mother, Anna was never alone during her illness. The family was at my sister’s bedside when she chose to stop chemotherapy and enter hospice. She died surrounded by family and friends.

Wherever she was, my sister sought community. A longtime foreign-language coordinator at Middlebury College, she was an a cappella singer, a community theater actor. More than 200 people came to her memorial service in a bright, sunny church. Her a cappella group performed a song by a Ghanaian Afro-rock band that she wanted for her send-off.

To my surprise, her death hit me so much harder than my mom’s. It was out of order.

Adding to the unexpectedness was the swift trajectory of her cancer.

When friends and family cleaned out her apartment, there was much discussion about what to do with the boxes of photos that belonged to Mom. No one wanted to throw them out. But they didn’t belong in storage again.

So four large heavy boxes came back to me, arriving when my family gathered for Thanksgiving. The first Thanksgiving without both my mom and my sister.

I opened the boxes the other day to write this story. Many photos I had seen before. I had packed them, after all, when Mom died. But there wasn’t time three years ago to flip through each album or look inside dozens of paper envelopes. There are thousands of photos.

At the bottom of the last box, I found a thin white album that was my parents’ wedding guest attendance book. A tiny label in my mom’s cursive handwriting reads: “children when small, mostly Anna in Taiwan 60s.” Inside were photos of my sister, when she was in Taiwan, still living with our grandparents. In two photos, she is standing alone by a small table with a birthday cake topped with three candles. She has a hesitant expression in one, a tiny half-smile in another. I had never seen these photos before.

I teared up immediately. I will make time to go through the boxes carefully, one photo at a time. I owe it to them. I owe it to myself.