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Pain over losing loved ones the new abnormal in HCMC

By Dang Khoa, Long Nguyen   November 18, 2021 | 04:27 pm PT
More than 17,000 people have died of Covid-19 in HCMC and thousands upon thousands are in mourning. Their new abnormal life is marked by grief over unexpected losses.

Nguyen Hoang Ha, 34, cannot remember what she felt when she was cooking at home and a phone rang in mid-August.

A doctor asked for her name and then said something she would never forget: "Your mother has died."

Ha does not know what happened next. Was she shocked? Was she in disbelief?

It took two whole days before the resident of HCMC’s Binh Tan District regained a semblance of emotional stability and call her brother in the northern province of Ha Nam to inform him that their mother had passed.

Their mother had been diagnosed with Covid-19 in July and died on August 15, aged 60.

Three months later, Ha cries every night, holding her mother’s bracelet in her hands.

"I feel empty, why did it have to be my mother? This pandemic is wicked," Ha said as she prepared dinner with her daughter and husband, placing one bowl on the table for her mother.

"I can never be ready for this loss," Ha said, wiping her tears.

The deaths of more than 17,000 people of Covid-19 in HCMC, Vietnam's pandemic epicenter, have left survivors in shock and pain. They have lost grandparents, parents and children to the virus. Most victims had lost their lives during the latest Covid-19 wave that broke out in late April.

A man bursts into tears as he collects the belongings of his father who had died of Covid-19 at a field hospital in HCMC, Sept. 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

A man bursts into tears as he collects the belongings of his father who had died of Covid-19 at a field hospital in HCMC, Sept. 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

With the southern metro entering a new normal after a four-month lockdown, many are still coming to terms with an immeasurable loss, knowing there can never be a return to a pre-pandemic life.

Amid the summer's pandemic dark cloud in Saigon, many people were so shocked that their loved ones had died without families by their side that they decided not to tell other family members for a while.

"It was too much to handle and process," said Vo Phi Thanh Dat, a frontline volunteer who decided to hide the news from his mother and four younger siblings that both his dad and grandfather died of Covid.

"They died without saying a word to us, or leaving anything, apart from some clothes."

The 22-year-old was volunteering to collect swab samples in HCMC's Binh Tan District when he learned the devastating news, which left him in shock.

"It took me a while to recollect myself," Dat recalled, noting that both members passed away mid-August, one day apart.

"I was the first one to learn the news. But since my mom and siblings had also contracted the virus and were under treatment, I hid it from them, fearing that it will hinder their recovery."

Thu Linh and her sister, residents of Binh Tan District, struggled to cope with the death of their 58-year-old mother, especially in terms of informing their father.

Even though the mother died early August, the daughters kept their father in the dark about what had happened.

"I did not know how he would cope and handle this blow. He thought his wife was still in the hospital, while we had actually collected her urns and we did not dare to put up her photograph on the altar at home..." Linh recalled.

The sisters kept the secret until late October, when they set up an altar for their mother.

"He could not believe that his wife had died. He bursts into tears every day."

Linh is devastated that her mother, who had worked so hard her whole life, never had the opportunity to rest, take a vacation, or do things she had hoped to do after retirement.

"We knew we could not support our father until we ourselves were able to accept the truth that our mother was gone."

Bereaved and at a loss

Huynh Thanh Hau’s life has become extremely hard after Covid claimed his wife’s life, leaving him to raise their children on his own.

On Aug. 23, nine of 10 members of his family tested positive for Covid. Hau followed his mother-in-law to the hospital while the others were treated at home. But one morning early September, he received news his wife had succumbed to Covid.

His savings nearly exhausted, Hau can't ask his parents to take care of his kids so he could go to work, because the recent Covid infection has weakened them. He has no idea what he can do to earn money, especially as a single parent.

In District 8, the loss of Dat's father has been a big blow because he was a breadwinner for the family, much loved by relatives and neighbors.

"We are facing financial troubles, since my father’s earnings supported the whole family," Dat said, sighing.

Soldiers bring the ashes of those who died of Covid-19 back to their families in the Mekong Delta. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

Soldiers bring the ashes of those who died of Covid-19 back to their families in the Mekong Delta. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

Coping strategies

Bereaved HCMC residents are trying to deal with their losses in various ways.

In District 8, Dat, trying to finish his university education as soon as possible, has become a fulcrum for his mother and siblings. He talks to them more often even as he remains focused on trying to make money.

"Whenever they feel sad, I try to distract them. We sometimes talk about our father and grandfather, and are gradually accepting the fact that they are gone," Dat told VnExpress International.

Linh and her sister are looking for a house in Binh Tan District for her father to live, so he can spend more time playing with his grandchildren "instead of having pain gnaw at him every day."

"He cries still, but at least he is willing to talk and spend time with his grandchildren. He is healing slowly, we hope."

Having lost her job and mother to the pandemic, Ha plans to return to her hometown in Ha Nam with her family.

"I want to bring my mother's urn to Ha Nam, and start a new chapter. I have no job here, and staying at home all day makes me miss my mom very badly."

Meanwhile, city authorities are trying to share the pain of the bereaved with a powerful symbolic gesture. HCMC churches and pagodas will ring their bells and ships sound horns at 7:30 p.m. Friday to commemorate Covid-19 deaths.

A requiem for those who died of Covid-19 would begin at the same time at the Independence Palace.

The bereaved, meanwhile, know that life will never be the same after unexpectedly losing their mothers, fathers and children.

"I have survived this outbreak, and I have a chance to live and fulfill my father's dreams with my siblings," Dat said.

"But losing him is a wound that time cannot heal."

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