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Coronavirus: ‘Grief on lockdown’ for Sam Ellis’ family

For some people the coronavirus pandemic has been an inconvenience; for others it has torn families – and lives – apart.

Natalie Brady’s dad died on his 52nd wedding anniversary.

“It’s something that I’ll never get over.”

Sam and Miriam Ellis got married in Gibraltar, where Sam was based with the army, in 1968.

Both keen golfers, Sam was president of Kirkistown Golf club where Miriam had a stint as ladies’ vice captain.

The couple had three daughters – Natalie, Ingrid and Samantha – as well as five grandsons who they adored.

A keen birdwatcher who also had a fondness for the music of Bette Midler and Jo Stafford, Natalie said her dad was a larger-than-life character who was always cracking jokes, he spent 10 years playing Santa at the golf club because of his white beard.

Natalie Brady holding her parents' wedding pictureSam Ellis, in the picture held by Natalie, with his wife Miriam on their wedding day

Virus took hold

Coronavirus found its way into the Ellis family home in March, when people were still able to go about their lives as usual before the lockdown was imposed.

Natalie thinks her mum contracted the virus and passed it on to Sam.

“Of course she feels that guilt, who would have though that you would get Covid in Cloughey off all places, it’s so rural,” said Natalie.

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Sam already had a number of health complications, having recently recovered from bronchial pneumonia. He had also had a pacemaker fitted after suffering heart problems.

When he did catch coronavirus, it took hold quickly.

As his condition deteriorated, on 30 March, his family called an ambulance, and he was taken to an isolation ward at the Ulster Hospital.

That was the last time his wife saw him.

A photo of Sam as a young man and a photo of him with MiriamSam Ellis met Miriam in the 1960s and they married in 1968

Sam was put on a do-not-resuscitate plan.

“He was not going to be sent to intensive care, he was not going to be ventilated, he was offered what the doctor called ‘supportive care’,” said Natalie.

A call to say goodbye

By this stage, Northern Ireland had entered lockdown and the hospital was preparing for an anticipated surge in deaths. Sam wonders whether this this was a factor in the care that was offered to her dad.

“They obviously had a plan in place to cope with an influx, but I don’t think the influx came and unfortunately I think my father suffered from that,” she said.

The South Eastern Trust told the BBC this was not the case, adding that Sam Ellis would have received the same care regardless of pandemic pressures.

As his health declined, the consultant allowed Natalie in to see her dad – although Miriam was not allowed to visit as she had been exposed to the virus.

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Natalie had to wear full protective clothing but was able to sit with her dad, talk to him and stroke his hair.

Sam and Miriam getting married and another more recent photoSam and Miriam on their wedding day and during Sam’s time as President of the golf club

She also set up a FaceTime call so her parents could say goodbye.

“That was a private moment that my parents were saying their last goodbyes to each other,” she said.

“She should have been able to hold his hand, whisper those words that needed said and take comfort in each other in those last moments.

“The fact that that didn’t happen is just heartbreaking for me and that’s something I’ll never get over,”

Sam Ellis passed away a few hours later.

Cremated alone

Nobody was allowed to visit Miriam to comfort her after Sam’s death, but things were only to get worse for the family.

Natalie’s sister Samantha had been born with severe cerebral palsy and died in 1991. She was cremated and her ashes kept under a tree in Roselawn, and Sam wanted to be cremated and laid to rest with her.

But when he died the hospital didn’t remove Sam’s pacemaker – which meant he could not be cremated.

Natalie was told her father would have to be buried and then exhumed at a later stage to be cremated.

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“To think that my father wouldn’t have got his last wish was devastating for us,” she said.

Refusing to give up, Natalie found an undertaker who was prepared to remove Sam’s pacemaker so he could be cremated.

But then she became aware of Roselawn’s lockdown restrictions which barred families from attending cremation services.

“My father’s final journey was in a hearse to Roselawn accompanied only by the driver of the hearse and one other person to assist,” she said.

Family photos from the Ellis familySam and Miriam had three daughters Natalie, Samantha and Ingrid

“The funeral director played the song Morning has Broken, which was Samantha’s favourite song, as they handed my father over to Roselawn staff.

“So he got cremated completely alone, his ashes are still with the funeral home as we haven’t been able to bury them yet.”

For the Ellis family, “grief is now on lockdown”, said Natalie.

“We’ve had three months of not being able to grieve properly and it will open again quite dramatically when we do get to say a final goodbye.”

Natalie does not want her father to be remembered by his final few weeks, but rather by his love for life, his family, golf and birdwatching – not to mention his kindness and sense of humour.

“He was my Hercules, my Odysseus, my Perseus and my father.

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“He will always burn bright in my heart.”

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