High school sweethearts die 4 days apart of COVID-19

Joan and Brian Emmerson leave behind a large family who must now grieve apart.

Joan and Brian Emmerson leave behind a large family who must now grieve apart

Joan and Brian Emmerson met when they were teenagers and were married 54 years. They died within days of each other after contracting COVID-19. (Submitted)

In the last moments before being intubated, Joan Emmerson knew what she had to do: call her kids.

"We actually said, 'We are not ready, and we will talk to you again in five days,'" her daughter Kathy Emmerson said. "That's what we told her, and that's what we were hoping for."

Joan Emmerson, 72, died April 10 in the intensive care unit of the Queensway Carleton Hospital. Four days later, her husband Brian Emmerson, 73, also succumbed to COVID-19.

Now, the people the Kanata couple left behind are speaking out to warn others about how quickly the virus can take hold and devastate an entire family.

"They were scheduled for their vaccination on the 9th of April. Had they had it say three or four weeks before that, none of this would likely have happened," said Stephen Clements, their son-in-law.

Kathy Emmerson, centre, with her husband Stephen Clements and their daughter Kayla Emmerson, says one of the hardest parts about losing her parents is not being able to grieve in person with her extended family. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Loving parents, devoted grandparents

The Emmersons had been married 54 years, and were high school sweethearts. They're described as the glue that kept a huge extended family connected, always there to help or offer advice.

"He still liked to change my tires instead of me taking them into the shop to do them there," Kayla Emmerson said of her grandfather.

He showed the perfect blend of wit and tough love that balanced out his wife's constant affection, according to the family.

"My mom was probably the sweetest, most giving person you would ever, ever meet," Kathy Emmerson said. "She had enough love in that heart to be able to give everybody everything they need."

Ottawa family grieving couple who died of COVID-19 four days apart

2 years ago
Duration 2:40
After Joan and Brian Emmerson died just days apart of COVID-19, their family is warning others to take the disease seriously. Daughter Kathy Emmerson, son-in-law Stephen Clements and granddaughter Kayla Emmerson spoke to CBC News.

Illness escalated quickly

Just before the Easter long weekend, the couple hadn't been feeling well, but Kathy Emmerson said her parents lacked the telltale signs of COVID-19. They had no fever or cough, mostly gastrointestinal issues and fatigue.

The pair booked a COVID-19 test on Easter Sunday, but when Emmerson arrived to pick them up for their appointment she had to call an ambulance. Her mother, who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was barely conscious.

Joan Emmerson was immediately admitted to the ICU with low oxygen levels. She was so sick that hospital staff called Emmerson back to bring her father in as well because they worried he, too, could quickly deteriorate. Both had to be intubated within hours of each other.

Prior to his retirement Brian Emmerson worked for more than 35 years with the department of public works. Joan Emmerson spent most of her time raising and caring for their four children: Kathy, Barry, Craig and Kevin. (Submitted)

Kathy Emmerson said her dad was devastated when he heard of his wife's condition, and she struggled with the decision to tell him.

"He worsened and probably didn't have the same fight in him and probably died of a broken heart more so than the disease," Emmerson said.

To make matters worse, Emmerson's brother was also fighting the illness. He was admitted to the ICU at the Civic campus of The Ottawa Hospital, and is now recovering at home. 

Family grieving apart

The family said the nurses and other staff at the hospital were wonderful and allowed them to visit before the end. A funeral will be postponed until restrictions are lifted and more people are allowed to gather.

The family says they have no idea where the couple picked up the virus, because they were careful to always wear masks and wash their hands.

Joan Emmerson came from a large family of 10 siblings. This picture was taken at her 70th birthday party. She's holding the blue cake next to her twin sister. (Submitted)

They say grieving apart from each other hasn't been easy.

"It's so hard, like we're all separate, we can't even hug each other," Kathy Emmerson said.

The family sends their sympathies to others in Ottawa and across the country who have lost loved one to the virus.

"And to everyone else, there's been too many family tragedies in Canada [and] around the world, so take care of yourselves, take care of your families and be careful," Clements cautioned.