Ottawa·Point of View

COVID-19 hit like a tornado, but this isn't my family's 1st storm

In 2009, Keisha Blair was widowed with an eight-week old baby. Now, she draws on what she learned from the sudden loss of her husband to weather the "tornado" of COVID-19, and to teach her children about salvaging gratitude from tragedy.

Keisha Blair writes about sudden loss, and the resilience her family has gained from it

From left to right, Keisha Blair's children Matthew, Ella and Alex, seen here at home during Christmas 2019, just before COVID-19 hit. (Blair Global Media)

In the early days of COVID-19, life seemed like a tornado that had tossed fragments of our precious lives and scattered the bits and pieces.

A typical day started with sorting through about 40 emails — complete with attached worksheets, tests and special assignments — from 10 to 14 different teachers, representing different schools and subject areas, and spanning three different grade levels.

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We tried to figure out Google Classroom while transforming our home into a "learning-work supercentre," complete with audio and webcam equipment, scanner, fax machine, multiple computers and a central printing station, a.k.a. the dining room.

Alex, 11, left, and Ella, 8, right, hard at work in their 'learning-work supercentre.' (Blair Global Media)

As a mother of three kids ages eight to 14, I suddenly found myself juggling instructions and co-ordination of tasks like teaching math and helping with science experiments, all while attending multiple meetings and calls for my own work.

As the internet chipped in and out and the kids lost connection with their teachers, there were frustrations — especially for my youngest, Ella — about missing an entire class. 

I walked into the Queensway Carleton Hospital with my husband living and breathing, and three hours later walked out with his personal effects in a white plastic bag.

Then there were the days when we felt like all hope was lost. In the midst of home-schooling we watched the death rates climb, and worried about grandparents and other family members who are vulnerable.

Now, what started out as a temporary setback has stretched into nearly a year. Along the way, there have been occasional tears and meltdowns, but there's also been growth for our family.

For me, it's brought back the memories from one of the most difficult times in my life. I have tried to draw on the lessons I learned then to help our family through.

'The twin tragedies of my husband's death and COVID-19 were eerily similar in speed and impact,' Blair writes. (Blair Global Media)

In 2009, I was suddenly widowed eight weeks after I gave birth to my second child. My husband died from an ultra-rare disease called pheocromocytoma — an illness of the adrenal gland that can lead to sudden death, and affects about eight in one million people.

The twin tragedies of my husband's death and COVID-19 were eerily similar in speed and impact. Like COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, most doctors had never seen a living case of the fast-moving disease my husband had — they had only read about it in textbooks. 

Matthew, right, and Alex, left, not long after their father died. (Submitted by Keisha Blair)

In fact, it wasn't until a year after my husband's death, that a team of doctors and pathologists understood the cause. Because it is difficult to test for this disease, over 70 per cent of cases are discovered only upon autopsy. 

I walked into the Queensway Carleton Hospital with my husband living and breathing, and three hours later walked out with his personal effects in a white plastic bag.

Hearing the stories of those whose loved ones suddenly became ill with COVID-19, I understand how a virus can come out of nowhere and alter the trajectory of our lives.

Keisha Blair's husband Garfield Mullings died suddenly in 2009, five months after their family trip to France. (Submitted by Keisha Blair)

When my husband died, my life also felt like a tornado had scattered all the bits and pieces. During that time, I struggled with pain, sorrow and grief, all while juggling the "triple helix" of responsibilities for mothers— career, home and very young kids. (My son Matthew started kindergarten the year his dad died, while Alex was an infant.)

To help, I tried to develop a method to feel better after this calamity, lessons which I am now trying to teach my kids. 

Lessons like seeing the difference between things that permanently affect you, and temporary setbacks. The internet chipping in and out, or not being able to attend in-person classes — both of these are short-term setbacks. This situation — at-home schooling and the lockdown itself — is not permanent, and will eventually change.

The other thing I learned was, despite everything, to focus on being grateful. Back then, I had two amazing kids to help me do that.

Matthew, now a 15-year-old high schooler, was just three when his dad died suddenly. (Blair Global Media)

Now, despite the horrific circumstances of COVID-19, I have remarried and have three beautiful kids to be thankful for. I am grateful for our health and safety, and grateful that we got through each day unscathed.

My eight-year-old daughter Ella and I have been working to share tips for parents and kids during this time, based on what has worked for our own family.

It is from Ella that I bring this last lesson: The only thing that really counts in this life is the positive impact we make on other people.

Keisha Blair is a mother of three who now works from home. She's also author of Holistic Wealth: 32 Life Lessons to Help You Find Purpose, Prosperity and Happiness and the Observer article My Husband Died at Age 34. Here Are 40 Life Lessons I Learned From It.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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