News Detail

Cheryl Kaiser is quoted in this Seattle Times article about what constitutes “Essential” travel

Defining ‘essential’ travel in the COVID era — and what to do when the trip in question could be your last chance to say goodbye

By Natachi Onwuamaegbu Special to The Seattle Times

Valerie Hirschberg had her plane ticket booked. Her mother was dying in Arizona and she needed to be there to say goodbye to her best friend. 

But this was late March, and coronavirus rates in Washington were skyrocketing. At age 68 and with an autoimmune illness, flying presented a huge risk for Hirschberg, a Sequim resident. 

Her siblings begged her not to come: They told her it was too dangerous, too risky; that it was better to wait than risk her life. So Hirschberg did what she always does in times of uncertainty: She called her mom.

“And she said, ‘Wait.’ And I told her I would,” said Hirschberg. “She died on April 2 and I wasn’t there with her.”

Months later, Hirschberg has found it nearly impossible to grieve. She hadn’t seen her mother in months, though they talked regularly over the phone. Sure she has that piece of paper, the death certificate that states the time and place of her mother’s death, but she still “can’t fully accept it.”

“It’s like I know it mentally in my head, but in my heart, I don’t,” Hirschberg said “Until I get in [my mom’s] house, it’s gonna be hard for me to accept that yes, she really is gone.”

The sense of isolation that comes with months of coronavirus lockdowns has taken a toll on many people, but it’s been a particularly difficult time for many elderly or immunocompromised Washingtonians who are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. Their world is changing in dramatic and permanent ways and they can’t be there to witness it. And especially in cases like Hirschberg’s, these people have had to make impossibly tough choices about what constitutes “essential” travel, weighing complex pros and cons to decide whether to attend funerals, see their parents or children or grandchildren. There is no end date in sight, and unless they want to risk getting themselves or their loved ones seriously sick, there is no good solution. 

Rituals like funerals are important because they “give meaning to being a social entity as human,” said Dr. Cheryl Kaiser, a psychologist at the University of Washington. Missing them can really take a toll on a person’s psyche.

“Rituals or ceremonies provide a unique sense of understanding reality, especially when the world is uncertain. Often, we’re grasping to figure out what’s going on in the world: What does it mean, who am I?” Kaiser said. “Questions about identity come to the surface. For [immunocompromised or elderly people], they’re missing access to these important events that provide meaning in a pretty uncertain time.”

Read the entire article here.