Isadora Kosofsky is no stranger to grief – as a photojournalist, she’s spent years documenting individuals in hospice care. But when her own father passed away in a hospital overloaded with COVID-19 patients, she was reminded that you can never be prepared to lose someone you love.
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I have spent 27 years trying to understand grief in my life and 14 years, trying to understand grief behind the camera and with a camera on my lap. Listening to people in the corners of their bedrooms and their bathrooms, in their cars, everywhere imaginable. And honestly, I still don’t think I know much about grief. I think that I’ve accepted that I’m powerless. So what I’ve tried to do, because I understand that I cannot avoid grief, because that will only lead to more heartache. But I’ve tried to do is surrender to grief.
I started documentary photography as a 13-year-old from a place of loss. I had just lost my grandmother who I felt was my only ally as a child. So my place of refuge which was in her arms, and in her bedroom and in her apartment no longer existed. And from that loss, my family fell apart. So overnight, I felt complete lack of belonging. I mean, as a child, I rarely felt like I belonged anywhere, and always gravitating towards older people. My first environment that I photographed in was in a skilled nursing facility with a hospice care component. I think I was led to document and hospice care as a 13–14-year-old girl, because I was considering my own death, I was in the depths of my own traumatic experiences. And suicidality was certainly a part of my response to my many traumatic experiences up until that point. So with that darkness, and that coexisting curiosity and resilience and ability to keep going, I went into these spaces with a desire to document people that we overlook, which are our elders, and adults with disabilities. And so often on these journeys to documenting the intimate lives of people, you meet individuals who may never make their way into your images, but who understand you, and they give you permission to be in certain spaces. And one of those people was TJ, he was a musician, and he happened to be in the elevator in a very Kismet moment, when I entered, and he invited me to a music therapy session on the top floor of the nursing home. And when I got up to the top floor, I was met with a circle of people with tambourines with ukuleles and they started singing Christmas carols and I sat down on an old chair in a thrift store dress with my Nikon 35 millimeter on my lap. So when I was sitting in that circle, with seniors, hitting those tambourines, playing those ukuleles, trying to sing with tracheas, or on oxygen, I felt a sense of belonging because I knew I was engaging in my deepest truth, which was storytelling, which was connection to others which was safe intimacy. Often in grief, there are no words, you enter a pre verbal state, where words feel like a deprecation of the enormity of the pain and the weight. So as a teenager sitting with people at the end of their lives, I learned that a lot of grief is unspoken, and that you have to sit in it in order to truly be in it as unbearable as uncomfortable as it is, and that you will find and sitting in grief, moments of grace and transformation, and joy and even humor.
Well, I was privileged to be one of the few photo journalists led into hospitals and nursing homes during the COVID 19 pandemic. So I was able to witness firsthand the complicated grief and loss that so many people and families are experiencing. Many people were denied traditional ritual. They were denied a goodbye with their loved ones. They were denied in many cases, the ability to sit with their deceased loved one. They were in many cases denied even a sense that their loved one was going to die. Losing my dad in a hospital not far from a hospital I had just been embedded in five days before, as a photo journalist, was a reminder that we are all vulnerable in the face of the great unknown of mortality, that none of us are immune to it. And we attempt to continually ignore that vulnerability. But we are all susceptible to the fallible state of being human. And my father needed care at the worst imaginable time in LA County history in terms of our overloaded healthcare system. So my grief is a layered one, my dad didn’t pass from COVID. But he found himself in that system. And he died in a room next to someone who was suffering from COVID in an ICU or most people had COVID-19. So when I entered the ICU when he was transferred from the regular hospital ward, I found myself telling the one of the crisis nurses that was pushing him, I’ve been here before, I think I was anchoring myself in some kind of stability that I knew what I was about to experience, but I didn’t, because you can never be prepared to lose someone. Watching my dad pass in that hospital, was similar to what I had seen shadowing other families, other people’s fathers. But I was also comforted by some of the health care workers who appealed to my father’s humanity, there was a nurse who came in, I don’t know what my dad was doing, because they had asked me to step out into the hallway because there were 6, 8 people in the room with him. But one of the nurses yelled, it’s okay, papa. And I was comforted in that moment that there was a surrogate of myself in the room with him, even though I couldn’t be there, that that someone else had a soulful connection to him and comforted him when he was likely terrified. So as crushing as it was to watch my dad who had a life of pain, and trauma, and injustice, before he ever set foot in this country, I am relieved that I was there with him as a witness and as a daughter until the end. My father and I had a complicated relationship. So I’m heartbroken that we arrived at a point in our lives of mutual respect. And he died. So I’ll never know what could have been for us. I am in all the stages of grief at this moment. I’m in the ones that I can verbalize and the ones that I have no words for. I certainly have had moments where I’ve sat in my grief, most recently and felt like I didn’t exist because it feels like the grief, the death, the loss has obliterated you. So I think part of grief work is coming back into your own existence. I’m Isadora Kosofsky, and thanks for listening to GOOD GRIEF.
This episode of Good grief is dedicated to the memory of my father, Mo and in memory of Bianca Brock, a woman I photographed for 14 years who passed away from Alzheimer’s in the same month that my father did.
GOOD GRIEF is a Lemonada Media original. Our producers are Hannah Boomershine, Giulia Hjort and Jorge Olivares. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music and sound design or by Hannis Brown. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms. If you want more Good grief, subscribe to Lemonada Premium only on Apple podcasts. This season of good grief is dedicated to those we’ve lost in the past year.