Dr Suthan Ulakanathan tells the story of how his family has dealt with grief in a time of chaos.
It’s Easter Sunday, 12 April 2020, and my mobile phone rings at 11:55 PM. It is the hospital's intensive care doctor who tells me my father has deteriorated in the last few hours. He asks if I want to come and see him should he get worse. I immediately say yes as I hadn’t seen him in person for several weeks and I missed him a lot. I get my clothes ready and sit in bed with my wife, tears running down my cheeks, as I am expecting the worst news I would ever receive in my life. At 1:30 AM I get the phone call I’ve been dreading. Appa had passed away.
It was typical of him not to wait and it felt like he made sure I would not see him in a poor state. My initial feeling was that he was no longer suffering and I felt selfish that I would not need to see him with wires and lines coming out of him. Being a doctor myself, I could imagine what he would have looked like and the scene in the intensive care unit.
At 2am I decided I had to break the news to my mum and sister in person. When I arrived they both wailed in despair and fell to the floor – it was made all the more difficult as I was wearing a face mask and gloves. I then had to tell my brother, who was already flying back to London from Singapore. Four days later, my Appa’s younger brother, my Chithappa, also died of coronavirus. Both were previously fit and well.
My Appa, Ulaganathan Subramaniam was 65 years old and came to London from the tiny island of Analaitivu, in the North of Sri Lanka, in 1976 to study electrical engineering. Like most islanders he was proud of his roots and often spoke of his little island off the coast of Jaffna.
Appa came to this country and worked multiple jobs while studying like many others in his generation. He made sacrifice after sacrifice to put his children through the best schools, have the best books and the best future.
Having fought off minor ailments, he was generally very fit and well. He enjoyed his weekly rounds of badminton with work colleagues and kept more active than me. We have videos of him jokingly running around the house and playing tennis indoors to wind up my mum during lockdown. Hence it came as a shock when he passed away so suddenly. Appa had a few mild symptoms for 10 days before having to go to the hospital due to low oxygen levels where he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Walking into the ambulance was the last time Amma saw him after giving him a kiss and a pat on the back.
He was ready to be discharged on his second day in hospital but he was kept in because they said he was anxious. I knew he had health anxiety and was always worried about becoming unwell, so we didn’t think anything more. He always ate healthily, would enjoy his homemade smoothies and make unusual herbal concoctions from recipes he would find online, all in the pursuit of keeping well.
The following morning, he had messaged Amma to say he was going for a procedure and to take care. After calling around the hospital I discovered he had been moved to intensive care as he had suddenly deteriorated and was immediately placed on a ventilator to help his breathing. The following evening he passed away. The passing of my uncle added to the trauma and magnified the seriousness of coronavirus.
Grief has always been something we share with friends and families. Sharing memories and uniting the love we all had for the same person. This has been difficult due to lockdown restrictions. I was not able to hug my mum or siblings in the immediate aftermath nor were we able to cry and laugh with each other or loved ones. Video calls did not bring the human touch we so craved. We were not able to have a religious funeral due to restrictions however we were very fortunate to see Appa’s body one last time in his coffin. Finding a funeral home who allowed viewings was also very difficult. We still haven’t seen so many friends and family due to Covid. Everything felt like it was set up to go against our human nature to grieve and mourn a loved one.
It has been a surreal feeling and it still does not feel real that someone so close is gone and we won’t see him again. We always expect our parents to be invincible and be around forever. Appa’s arms were the most comforting and you would never feel more secure than when he held you. It feels like that security blanket has now gone, leaving us feeling so vulnerable. As a family we are trying hard to keep going without forgetting the wonderful memories we have. Rocking my one-year-old daughter to sleep makes me appreciate life and how beautiful it can be with the wonderful people we are blessed to have around us in our family and friends. Even though he will always be a collection of memories and stories to her, we are fortunate to know he had the opportunity to embrace and dote over his granddaughter for 10 precious months.
Appa was a joker and loved to do silly things to make us laugh. He was the life of the party. He was also fond of good food, education and health. This inspired us to launch greeting cards in his name, Ulagan Cards. Sending his name all over the world between loved ones has brought us a sense of joy.
As we enter a new chapter in our lives I feel more empowered to enjoy life and appreciate all the small things I used to take for granted. Appa always joked he would go out with a bang and he sure did. We miss him and my uncle so much but life must go on. We may not have a ‘normal’ one to return to but it will be one where we live each day to its fullest.
Returning to work as a GP has been emotional as I am being reminded of COVID every day. Thanks to the support of the staff and patients at my practice I have been reminded of my innate drive as a GP to help people. Together we are keeping each other motivated to persevere through this difficult time.
Dr Suthan Ulakanathan is a GP in Surrey, UK.