‘Too much at stake to continue to live carelessly’: Grieving Akiak family implores others to follow pandemic safety guidance

Undated photo of Lucy Ivan.
Undated photo of Lucy Ivan.(Ivan family photo)
Published: Nov. 20, 2020 at 1:11 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Across Alaska, families are being forced to reckon with a new, unwelcome way of having to say goodbye.

One of those families can be found in the small village of Akiak, in the southwestern part of the state: Lucy Ivan’s family, including her many children and grandchildren, has been grappling with grief, loss, and a departure lacking anything traditional since her death on Saturday.

“It was very, very hard to have to bury my gram the way we did,” said Lucy’s granddaughter Cynthia, “without being able to help, to comfort and console one another, not being able to be home with family who were sick with COVID themselves, caring for my grandmother.”

Lucy had COVID-19, her granddaughter said, which meant in-person visits from her myriad of friends and family outside her household were off the table. Loved ones, even those from only a village away, couldn’t stop by and see her. Most anyone she communicated with was either behind a window, phone screen or - in rare cases - thick personal protective equipment, with several feet in between.

Coronavirus claimed Lucy, whom Cynthia described as a loving woman but fierce fighter when she had to be, on Nov. 14. Cynthia’s aunt said Lucy had developed symptoms, including headaches and body aches, on Nov. 5.

“When I say my gram was a fighter,” Cynthia said, “nothing was ever too much for my gram to bear. I never knew her to complain or say anything about anything being too much. Even in her 70′s, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. And even then in her old age, she was able to fight and beat colon cancer. She survived.

“But there was a kindness and a sort of gentleness,” she said, “that a lot of us in our generation don’t really have anymore.”

Another granddaughter of Lucy’s, Andrea Keene, said over Facebook messenger that Lucy was ”the only woman I knew that had a heart of pure gold.”

“She was the best of the best,” Keene said. “She was so strong and so loving. To lose her, I lost one of the biggest parts of my life. Not being able to have her back crushes me.”

While Lucy was known for her kind spirit as well as her persistence and determination, the virus presented a different challenge and deadly complications, a combination that she couldn’t shake off.

“This virus isn’t a joke,” Keene said. “It doesn’t care if someone is the most loving, kindest, or pure-hearted person; it’ll take them without a care. Take this virus seriously, so what happened to us won’t happen to you.”

As Cynthia detailed in a lengthy Facebook post, Lucy’s passing also brought an even greater burden than usual to bear in the form of familial obligations to take care of the octogenarian’s body. Unlike common tradition, Lucy’s family had to prepare her for burial. Part of that was using a pre-built kit from the regional health corporation - which includes body bags, PPE, sanitizing agents and a set of directions - that’s meant to help families with safer preparation of a body for burial when someone who has died from a suspected or known case of coronavirus.

“Not being able to see my grandmother in her last moments, that was one of the struggles,” Cynthia said. “And not being able to help.”

Lucy’s household family members, all of whom are now also sick after caring for her, washed her face and hands before putting her in a qaspeq, Cynthia said. They bagged her body and nailed her wooden coffin shut before taking her via four-wheeler to her resting place in the village, without a final viewing for her kids or grandkids. A pastor spoke only over speakerphone.

After a small crew slowly lowered Lucy’s casket into her grave, a video posted to Facebook shows them passing by her resting site one by one. A woman who can be heard saying she is putting dirt in for the people who couldn’t be there.

“I love her dearly. We all did,” Cynthia said of her grandmother. “She was very loved. Very, very loved.”

Cynthia said she also hopes communities can rally to slow the spread of the virus together. A local family in Akiak scoured the tundra for medicinal ingredients, she said, such as Labrador tea and pine, making them available to anyone who wanted some, even before coronavirus hit their village. She said she wants people to stick together like that and to help each other in times of great need.

“This is what our ancestors did for influenza, measles,” she said. “They stuck together and survived, and so will we.”

For now, instead of planning any celebrations of life or grand feasts in honor of Lucy, Cynthia, Andrea and their family are pleading with Alaskans to follow safety measures so that others don’t have to go through the same things they did. As counts in the region surge, even one more case like Lucy’s, and her family’s, is one too many.

“We must take caution in these times for the love of one another,” Cynthia wrote in her Facebook post. “Too much is at stake to continue to live carelessly.”

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