December 31, 2020
Media, Grief, and Three Views of a Tragic Covid Zoom Goodbye

Media, Grief, and Three Views of a Tragic Covid Zoom Goodbye

In the case where families and loved ones must say goodbye virtually, the life of that terrible scene is not so simple.

by Michael Shaw

What a terrible loss for the Arroyos. Our deep respect to the family for sharing this passing with the world, broadcast in March from a hospital in Riverside County. And what a painful assignment for SF Chronicle photographer Scott Strazzante. The images in this post were drawn from The Chronicle’s online news story as well as the print front page.

The pandemic and social media have brought us the most awkward and jarring experience of saying goodbye. At this point, there is nothing more ubiquitous or banal as a video chat. But in this case, it’s the banality of it—the reduction of the person to a window on a screen, one in a checkerboard of boxes—that makes José Jesús’ goodbye that much more excruciating. The screenshot says everything about the inability to touch, to hold, to be in your body.

Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Caption: Verónica Hernández, looks at an image from a family call on Zoom of her uncle, José Jesús Arroyo, as he waves goodbye to his family before losing his life to COVID-19 earlier this month. Photographed at the Hernández home in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Thursday, December 17, 2020.

At least the flatness and the cold deprivation is matter-of-fact. That is, until you see Strazzante’s additional photo of Verónica Hernández holding her phone with her uncle encased, swiping past his final wave. Using her mobile, she has to scroll past José Jesús to see the others on the call, in this case, his son-in-law Nicholas Keegan.

Witnessing the experience on the smaller device, and especially, against the background of the room and the child with a blanket, we acutely appreciate the deprivation of the frame.

Photo: Inset: Courtesy of the Arroyo family

Caption: San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, December 18, 2020. Saying goodbye from afar: José Jesús Arroyo’s family members shared a screenshot of one of their final Zoom calls to illustrate the toll the pandemic is taking on families like theirs. On the call with Arroyo (top right) are daughter Brenda Keegan (top left) and son-in-law Nicholas Keegan (bottom right). At bottom left are wife Esther (blue mask), daughter Pricilla (waving), daughter Jannette (far right) and son Eliseo (left rear). Arroyo died of COVID-19 this March in a hospital in Riverside County.

On the other hand, the virtual bedside actually wakes up the printed page. The newspaper is flatter than flat, and the contrast of the Chronicle cover makes the screenshot as dynamic and alive as the screen makes it shallow. In a strange way, the cover brings 1918 to mind. In that pandemic, José Jesús’ would have likely died alone in quarantine, his passing marked perhaps by a few lines in an obituary. The virtual goodbye has been widely debated and will continue to be as long as contagions persist. But it’s worth noting that the experience today is something people in the past could have only imagined.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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