A mother dies of COVID-19, and a Gaspé family struggles to mourn without rituals

Doréa Dee liked tending to her flower garden, cooking for the many guests who stopped by her New Richmond, Que., home and, above all, going out to a restaurant for a nice dinner.

“Chicken wings, that was her little treat,” said her son, Régis Leblanc, who moved back to the Gaspé Peninsula as an adult to care for his aging parents.

Leblanc last saw his 86-year-old mother on March 8 at her favourite spot, a café called l’Auberge du Marchand. His sister, Évangéline Leblanc, had come home for a week-long visit. It would be her last before Dee died of COVID-19 on April 7.

“We always had a great time, but that week was particularly special. It was just perfect,” said Évangéline, her voice breaking.

Along with thousands of families across Quebec, Dee’s children are trying to make sense of their grief, robbed of the traditional rites they had hoped for their mother.

‘Engulfed into the system’

Doréa Dee moved into the Manoir du Havre, a private seniors’ home, in March 2019, preferring it to the larger residence she was living in following her husband’s death in 2017.

She needed a walker to get around but “was quick as a whip” and liked helping staff care for the other residents, her son said. “It gave her a sense of purpose for her life there.”

Early on in the pandemic, on March 31, the Manoir du Havre, in Maria, Que., was the first long-term care home in the Gaspé region to be infected with cases of COVID-19. In total, 28 residents tested positive and six died.

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When the first cases were reported, Dee was tested at the hospital in Maria and immediately transferred by air ambulance to Quebec City’s Enfant-Jésus hospital — roughly 600 kilometres away — on Saturday, April 4, a designated COVID-19 treatment centre.

“The hardest through all this has been letting my mother be engulfed into the system, without being able to accompany her,” Leblanc said.

With the rules surrounding hospital visits still unclear, Évangéline, a retired nurse, was able to see her mother the following Monday.

Évangéline Leblanc poses with the photo she took of her mother during the last visit they had together, at a hospital in Quebec City in April. Évangéline later tested positive for COVID-19 but recovered. (Julia Page/CBC)

Dee was unconscious. Évangéline stroked her hair and whispered comforting words into her ear. But after an hour, she was asked to leave. Dee died the next day.

Having worked in palliative care herself, Évangéline said she can’t fathom how her mother was left alone at the end, far from her home.

“She deserved to be with someone, like all the other people who died because of COVID,” she said.

Grieving with thousands

While Quebecers were still religiously tuning in to hear the government’s daily COVID-19 update at 1 p.m., Régis Leblanc couldn’t bring himself to hear Premier François Legault announce the daily death toll.

“It was really disturbing to hear there were 130 new deaths. That meant 130 people were losing the backbone of their families.”

Évangéline would eventually also be included in the government’s tally of new cases. Despite the protective equipment she wore in the negative pressure room to see her mother, she tested positive for COVID-19 one week later.

Régis Leblanc lives in Carleton-sur-Mer, where he’d often take his mother out to sit in the park and watch the sea. (Julia Page/CBC)

Suffering from tremors and heart palpitations, the 64-year-old stayed in bed for more than two weeks. Now fully recovered, Évangéline said she still doesn’t regret the visit and the risk it entailed.

But for her siblings, it was a frightening period.

Régis Leblanc said it left him feeling even more anxious about the possibility of the virus grabbing hold of other members of his family.

While they don’t agree with all the decisions made by public health officials at the time, their biggest concern is with the public discourse that has emerged over the summer, seeming to minimize the dangers of COVID-19.

Protests against mandatory masks and inflammatory remarks on social media have been hard to swallow, Leblanc said.

“When I see people who are angry, who are criticizing the government because they can’t go on with their lives as usual, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be saying these things if they’d lost their mother or their grandmother.”

Finding comfort in small things

Dee’s four children want to be together to honour her memory, but their brother Bertin lives in France and would need to quarantine for 14 days in Montreal before heading to Gaspé, which is too long a break from his work.

The family held a virtual ceremony in June, where they shared stories and played some music. Leblanc said it helped, but he still feels like something is missing.

They hope to be able to all meet together sometime in the fall, along with Dee’s siblings, and lay her to rest next to her husband.

Doréa Dee, celebrating her 86th birthday in August 2019. (Submitted by Régis Leblanc)

“We were deprived of that moment of comfort with our family,” Leblanc said. “We know Doréa left on April 7, but it’s like we’re suspended in time.”

For Évangéline, being able to hold some of her mother’s belongings that were sent to her home, including the lipstick she bought for Dee during her last visit in March, has helped.

“It’s allowing me to reclaim some of the time we lost.”

Doréa Dee, sitting to the right of her husband, Germain Leblanc, during a visit from their granddaughter and great-grandson. (Submitted by Régis Leblanc)

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