‘Dying From COVID Is Not Pretty’: A poet grieves the loss of her sister

Pam Gustafson loves to write poetry. It helps her process everything she reads and sees in her life. Writing hundreds of poems is what has helped Gustafson stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I call it therapy because, physically, I cannot cry due to an autoimmune disorder,” Gustafson, a retired educator who lives in Milwaukee, said.

So when Gustafson’s sister, Mary Beth Nolan, died from COVID-19 complications May 29, she couldn’t cry about it. To grieve, Gustafson wrote a poem and read it at her sister’s funeral.

“After her death, I was angry over those who refused to vaccinate, so I wrote, ‘Dying From COVID Is Not Pretty,'” Gustafson said. “It channeled my anger over my sister’s horrible death.”

Nolan, who lived in a Houston suburb, was sick for about a month before she passed away.

Gustafson was heartbroken after losing the little sister she helped care for as a child. Gustafson said she loved “showing her off to the world.”

“Mary Beth was a gift to the world: kind, energetic and creative,” Gustafson said. “She loved to pick out special gifts for people, and she liked to make things for people. I have a plate on my wall that she hand-painted and said, ‘Pam, this plate may be empty but my love for you is full.” β€” Sisters are forever.'”


Sisters Mary Beth Nolan, front, and Pam Gustafson, back, in a car. Photo courtesy of Pam Gustafson


A plate Mary Beth Nolan made for her sister, Pam Gustafson. Photo courtesy of Pam Gustafson

Nolan was known for his sense of humor and “corny puns.” She was also the glue that held her family together.

“I loved how I could depend on her,” Gustafson said. “Whenever I went through a crisis, she supported me and helped. I was single and lonely for a period of my life and I knew I could visit her or she would visit me.”

Nolan was an instruction technology coordinator and dedicated her life to education. The 59-year-old loved teaching children, including her own three children and two grandchildren who lived nearby.

Gustafson said Nolan was also fully vaccinated, yet immunocompromised due to an autoimmune disorder, when she died.

Gustafson sent her poem “Dying From COVID Is Not Pretty” to WPR’s WHYsconsin, with hopes more people would learn about her sister’s experience and encourage them to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Dying from COVID is not gentle death
It is a brutal way to die, gasping for breath
I watched my baby sister die this way
She begged for a ventilator every day

She knew a ventilator signaled the end
But Her fear and anxiety needed to mend
I saw the fear in her eyes and tried to send
Messages of love to my sister, my friend

Her long hair was matted against her face
Her teeth were black with lots of dried gunk
She had to communicate by trying to write
Refused to move her mask aware of her plight

Imagine gasping for air just to talk
So much fatigue you can’t walk
Like choking on a piece of food blocking air
Or drowning your gasping lungs in despair

And living for weeks on tubes alone
What your body used to do on its own
A catheter to pee, you can’t walk to the can
Tired you can’t lift your body for a bedpan

A tube that brings you some nourishment
Your body can’t coordinate breath and eating
Now your lungs are deflated balloons pleading
For the air they were used too and needing

Two garden hoses sutured to your neck
To remove carbon dioxide waste
To replenish oxygen organs to suffice
You can’t move there is no food to taste

Imagine writing a note to your sister
This is the last time you will see me
Even though it hadn’t crossed my mind
The site of her struggle was so unkind

She was right it was the last time
But at that point I still had some hope
But my sister just could not cope
Her lungs functioning at zero percent

Doctors considered double lung transplant
But my sister wanted to end the struggle
She was constantly thinking I just can’t
I have been short of air for a long month

And on that same note she wrote to me
Was a note to the people who gave her care
β€œCan you put me under? Insert the tube?”
She was suffering wanted to die I conclude

For death was her only choice to end her pain
Then her kidneys shut down her heart waned
They brought her back twice but it was her will
To escape her body, the body that COVID killed

This week, WPR and WHYsconsin are bringing you stories of the way the pandemic has affected us. They include people who have lost family members, those who’ve lost jobs or changed careers, and patients and health care workers facing overburdened hospitals. For more stories on COVID-19, visit wpr.org/COVID.

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