Ottawa·First Person

The hugs we waited for, and the hugs that were taken away

After months of COVID separation, Sharon Agard and her family were thrilled when "hug day" finally arrived and they could be close. Now that her mother has unexpectedly and suddenly died, Agard writes about her bittersweet memories of that day and why hugs matter.

Sharon Agard writes about her children, her parents, ‘hug day’ and hugs that will never be

Sharon Agard, middle, with her three children and both sets of grandparents before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Sharon Agard)

This First Person article is the experience of Sharon Agard, a daughter, mother and communications strategist in Ottawa's east-end suburb of Orléans. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

This is our family, with my three kids and both sets of grandparents. We are big huggers. 

My newly retired parents decided to get away for the winter, with a plan to spend five weeks in Sri Lanka where my family is from. We were all caught off-guard when the pandemic hit, and they were stranded there for six months.

One Ottawa family’s bittersweet return to hugs

1 year ago
Duration 2:09
After months of separation, Sharon Agard and her family were thrilled when they were finally able to hug her parents again. But just months later, her mother unexpectedly died, leaving behind bittersweet memories and the thought of hugs that never were.

My father, a former cardiac patient, was unable to fly until July when we were able to get seats on a safer, pod-style flight home. 

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We worried every moment until they landed safely back in Canada. 

Sharon Agard's parents Sheila and Shelton Peiris, both 69, found themselves suddenly stranded in Sri Lanka at the start of the pandemic. (Submitted by Sharon Agard)

After months apart, the kids charged at their Nana and Papa when they pulled up at the front door. They were so desperate for big, warm, loving hugs, but because of quarantine rules I screamed, "no touching!" and stopped them before they did.

For two weeks we kept our distance, following quarantine and distancing guidelines. We grinned at each other through the glass of their front door, and the kids brought all their toys over to play on my parent's front lawn — just so they could enjoy watching their grandchildren play, even if they couldn't touch.

For two weeks after they were finally back in Ottawa, Shelton and Sheila Peiris, stayed two metres away from their grandchildren awaiting 'hug day.' (Submitted by Sharon Agard)

Finally the day came where we could hug. My kids made "Hug Day" signs to mark the moment we'd all been waiting for.

It's wild watching the video now because you can hear my five-year-old saying, "I've wanted to hug you for so long!" I realized how badly both my daughter and my mom wanted and needed that moment.

Our family is so close — and I think distance made us appreciate that closeness that much more. I sobbed tears of relief when I finally got my turn to squeeze them tightly in my arms. None of us wanted to let go again.

A month later, when school began, we decided to home-school the kids so we could be closer to our parents. For me, it just wasn't worth it to lose family time with grandparents. I wanted to spend that family time with my parents, too.

Agard's three children, from left to right, Joey, 3, Chanelle, 6 and Olivia, 8, marked 'hug day' with special signage. (Submitted by Sharon Agard)

Nana's diagnosis

Four months after their return home, we were devastated to find out that healthy, young Nana had an aggressive cancer. 

It was such a shock. My mom's so active, she walks 5K in the neighbourhood every day. Neighbours would ask, "where's your mom?" It was so sudden.

First, she had a backache that just wouldn't go away, and stomach cramps. Because of COVID, doctors weren't seeing patients in person, and phone calls weren't providing answers to what ailed her.

Sharon Agard writes that there were many hugs for Nana during the few weeks after her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. (Submitted by Sharon Agard)

Her pain worsened and finally her doctor told her to go to the ER. On Dec. 28, right there in the ER waiting room, doctors gently told her, "listen, it's really, really bad."

At first, they said she wasn't going to make it to New Year's Day. They said she wouldn't even live long enough to be tested or officially diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

But we pushed and got the tests fast-tracked. On Jan. 4, it was official — stage 4 pancreatic cancer. We could attempt chemo to try and buy a little more time, but beyond that, there was nothing that could be done. The survival rate of pancreatic cancer, "the silent killer," is said to be less than two per cent.

We moved her into our home so we could care for her and get as many hugs as we could.

My mom declined rapidly, and died three weeks later. She was wrapped in all our loving hugs as she drew her last breaths. I hugged her tight, my head on her chest, and sadly listened as her heart stopped beating.

Sharon Agard cared for her mom at home after her sudden diagnosis. (Submitted by Sharon Agard)

Now all we have left to hug is each other — and console ourselves with the memories of all the hugs we had.

But I also remain haunted by all the hugs we missed out on because of COVID-19.

Grieving during COVID

Then came the funeral. COVID meant that we weren't able to grieve with family and friends. No hugs of condolence permitted.

Because she was active in her communities in Canada and overseas, over a thousand people watched the livestream of the tiny ceremony.

One of my friends posted on Facebook saying she never thought she'd miss funerals, but she was watching me on camera, seeing my immense pain, and she just wanted to be there to give me a hug. 

Sharon Agard, her father, and brother were the only family in attendance at Sharon's mother's funeral due to COVID restrictions. (Submitted by Sharon Agard)

I feel for all of the people, just like me, who have had to grieve during COVID and couldn't have the support of friends and family to get through. In those foggy days after losing a loved one, you truly do need many, many hugs.

Personally, I didn't handle the trauma well. I developed a severe stutter and facial tics and I lost my ability to communicate. 

I'm a writer and communicator for a living. Talking to people is my bread and butter. Losing my ability to speak was devastating.

Doctors called it a rare response to complex psychological trauma. There was no medical explanation other than the immense shock and pain of what I had been through. I underwent four months of speech therapy, alongside bereavement therapy and slowly, I regained my ability to speak.

The bittersweet return of hugs

Now, restrictions are easing. We know people are able to see each other and be close to one another again. Life is slowly inching back to normal — but not for our family.

For me, it's a painful reminder of the hugs that will never be.

To 'hug' Nana during her last days, Agard's daughter had to be held aloft so as not to hurt her. (Submitted by Sharon Agard)

The everyday hugs like when I used to walk in the door saying, "hi mom, hi dad, I'm home," and give them a hug. Or when my mom was cooking and I could annoy her by giving her a sneak attack bear hug from behind, while she stood stirring food at the stove.

Or the hugs that go with the bigger things in life. Accomplishments at work. Selling our home. Kids' milestones. Birthdays. Anniversaries. These celebratory moments won't be marked in the same way. 

My dad cried when the kids blew out the candles at each of their birthdays, because for us, presents aren't the same without a big hug. Now I realize our hugs were maybe the greatest part of the gift.

When I look at Facebook and Instagram and I see people hugging that haven't touched in over a year, my heart just swells for them.

Then it instantly falls and crashes because I don't get that, too.

Sharon Agard is a communications strategist for the federal government and mom of three in Ottawa.

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