As the CEO of CaringBridge—a platform that allows people to share health updates and rally around those facing serious illness—Liwanag Ojala gives advice to caregivers and patients all the time. But last fall, she experienced what it was like to navigate her own loss when her father died of cancer in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At our virtual event late last year, Oasis 2020: Hope and Possibility, Ojala talked about her dad, Ernesto, who had come to America from the Philippines many years earlier to pursue the American dream and whose adventurous spirit carried him throughout his life. Ojala recounted her father’s final days and moments and shared some tidbits of wisdom that she gained from navigating them:
No amount of planning can prepare you for the end of life. Ojala likes to plan out absolutely everything, but she learned during her dad’s final days that “this is a zone you can’t plan.” Every day brings different emotions that you don’t expect. One day you’ll feel joyful that you have the time you do with your loved one; the next day you’ll feel exhausted. “There’s an ebb and flow I didn’t expect,” said Ojala. “But there’s moments of light too that I didn’t expect.”
It is a gift to be able to be with your loved one in their final moments. When Ojala’s dad was having difficulty breathing and she was driving him to the ER, she remembers telling her father: “There’s a chance I might not be able to be with you.” And sure enough, when they arrived at the entrance to the ER, her dad was admitted and she was given the option to wait at home or in the parking lot due to COVID-19 precautions aimed at keeping hospital patients and staff safe. She remembers thinking: “I can’t imagine a situation where he would die without me, and I’m so sad for the families that have experienced that.” Fortunately, Ojala’s dad made it home from the hospital, and when his time came, it was with Ojala, her husband, and her sister by his side holding his hand. There is much about death that we can’t control, especially amid the coronavirus, but for Ojala, it was a blessing to be able to control the environment and the small circle of people present when her dad took his final breath.
The pandemic hasn’t stopped the outpouring of love and support for families navigating loss. Updating friends and family about her dad through CaringBridge was the No. 1 thing that helped Ojala navigate her dad’s illness. And although she laments that some of the traditional ways of saying goodbye weren’t available to her family amid the pandemic, they were still very much surrounded by love and support. “The outpouring of emotion from the larger community—they really sought a way to try to express how they felt about my family and my father,” she said. “And the normal things you do that you couldn’t do—what replaced it was some very beautiful expressions of care in letters and memories.” Ojala’s family was touched deeply by memories people shared of things her dad said or did 25 or 40 years earlier that they’d never forgotten. “I think humans are resilient,” said Ojala in reflecting on losing a family member during a global health crisis. “They find a way to express that despite the restrictions that the pandemic has placed.”
Tell your loved ones what they mean to you while you can. Ojala said her best advice is to “let everything out.” You don’t want to later regret not telling your loved one how you felt about them when you had the opportunity. This is true throughout our lives and not just when we or someone else is approaching death, she noted.
Watch our entire virtual program to hear Ojala’s full reflection and to hear from other experts, speakers, and musicians while honoring the layers of loss we’ve experienced amid the pandemic.