Opinion | Losing a family member to COVID-19 as a college student

After losing both of my grandparents to COVID-19 in a matter of two and a half weeks, seeing the actions of University of Iowa students is extremely frustrating.

Carly Dalberg

On Oct. 26, 2020, I received a call from my parents telling me that my grandmother had died from COVID-19 and pneumonia.

I had been keeping in touch with my parents the week before, with my mom updating me on her condition. My mother is a nurse at the hospital in my hometown, so she was able to see her and pass on messages from me as she worked. With the fall semester and midterms in full swing, I don’t think I fully comprehended the things my mom told me until my grandma actually died.

I remember crying while talking to my parents and asking them questions about what was going to happen next. I went home a few days later and prepared for the small graveside service that was set to take place on Halloween. I was filled with sadness and regret over the fact that I didn’t really get to say goodbye.

My grandmother was relatively healthy for her age. She had some issues in the past with kidney cancer, but her health troubles were well-managed. She did her part during the pandemic — staying inside and making sure she was safe. My family and I aren’t really sure how she contracted COVID-19. We believe she contracted the virus from my uncle — whom she lived with — despite the absence of a positive test.

The week I went home for my grandmother’s services, I had a class exam. I didn’t have time to take it earlier or later, since my lab section would go over the answers the following Monday. I felt stuck, like I couldn’t reach out to my professor to explain my situation. Although professors preached that they were available to help in these ‘unprecedented times,’ it felt like their doors were closed.

On the day of my grandmother’s service, I was fortunate enough to see my grandfather. He was living in a nursing home for a couple of years after a stroke limited his mobility and cognition. I hadn’t seen him in more than a year, and I was so happy to talk to him again.

He arrived in one of the nursing home’s vans in a wheelchair and donning a mask. He wasn’t allowed to leave the vehicle and we weren’t allowed to touch him — otherwise, he would have to quarantine for two weeks.

I talked to him and told him about school. I asked him if he would like me to send him letters, and he said yes. I told him that I loved him, and he told me he loved me too.

I celebrated my 20th birthday on Nov. 9, 2020. I spent time with friends and family the weekend before, enjoying the start of what is supposed to be one of the best decades of my life. Three days later, my grandpa died from COVID-19 after an outbreak at his nursing home.

When I received the call from my parents, I instantly felt defeated. I was still grieving the loss of my grandma, and now the cycle was about to begin again. I found a little bit of comfort in the fact that I was able to say “I love you” one last time.

Johnson County’s daily positivity rate was 12.65 percent when my grandmother died, which jumped to 32.9 percent only 2 and a half weeks later when I lost my grandfather. Over that time period, the University of Iowa reported 333 new cases among the student population and 109 cases among staff. I still saw students going out to bars, disregarding social distancing guidelines, and not wearing masks.

I work for University Housing and Dining, in one of the residence halls. I see students come and go like crazy, their outfits complete with a neon wristband or an ink stamp on the back of their hand. I can tell some of them are intoxicated when they come back to the dorms.

Seeing these students — the ones who go out to crowded bars and disregard university policies — is extremely frustrating. I’ve heard students say that they’ve already had it, so they know they’ll get through it. They’re oblivious to the people around them that may not “get through it.”

I remember the fear and anxiety I felt when I traveled home — what if I got my family sick? We just lost someone to the virus, and what if I was the one spreading it to my family by coming home for the weekend? I was on edge for the entire week leading up to my visit — even a scratchy throat had me worried.

I have friends that have struggled with chronic illness their entire lives. From juvenile arthritis to chronic pain issues, I’ve seen my friends struggle to make it through the common cold. Something like COVID-19 could risk their life. Students with chronic illness and other disabilities are almost always an oversight in college.

People need to open their eyes to the fact that there are students their age who may not survive the pandemic, or that students have family members that might not either. With vaccines being rolled out across Iowa, this is not the time for them to put their guards down and relax.

It’s been about five months since I lost both of my grandparents to the virus, and I am still grieving. But despite the grief, I have to keep moving on with my life. It helps that things are getting better — with vaccines rolling out and the weather warming for outdoor business — but the grief will stick with me for far longer.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.

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