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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life for everyone in Kansas City in ways we don’t even understand yet. KCUR is documenting those changes, one by one, through our individual stories. Share yours.

This Kansas City Man's Mother Died Alone, But He Finds Lessons In How She Lived For This Pandemic Era

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Courtesy of the Rasmussen family
Brothers David (left) and Norman Rasmussen with their mother, Kathleen, who recently died without them in a skilled nursing facility. They say they're grateful for hospital staff who they believe were there for her.

In KCUR's series, The Next Normal, we document how the lives of Kansas Citians have been transformed by the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders.

Norman Rasmussen, 59, is a cheery IT professional who is also an interim pastor at Vineyard Church, which is located north of the river in Kansas City, Missouri.

He and his three siblings lost their dad a few years ago. That was a blow, but they still had their mom.

Kathleen Rasmussen was a lifelong musician, a choir director and devout Christian who always had time to help others and give back to her community.

“She was leading a Bible study until she was 90,” her son says.

Kathleen Rasmussen died a few weeks ago at the age of 91 in a skilled nursing facility not far from where two of her sons live. But they weren’t allowed to be at her side when she took her last breath.

As some businesses begin to open up after two months on lockdown, hospitals, health care facilities and nursing homes are still restricting visitors. The virus is robbing many of the chance to be at their loved one’s side for a final goodbye.

Devotion to music and family

One of Kathleen Rasmussen’s favorite songs was Claire de Lune by Claude Debussy.

“They played it at my dad’s funeral and [before that] it was played at their wedding,” says Norm Rasmussen.

Her granddaughter inherited a love of the romantic classic, as well as her grandmother’s passion for music. It was a gift when 24-year-old Sarah Rasmussen, now a classical pianist in Los Angeles, was able to play the song for her grandmother just before the facility began to ban visitors.

“To sit at her small piano she was still allowed to have in her assisted living apartment and play Claire de Lune, it meant so much to my mom,” says Rasmussen.

Not long after that, Kathleen Rasmussen began suffering complications from congestive heart failure. She was admitted to the hospital. It wasn’t long before medical staff told them she was a candidate for hospice.

Rasmussen and his brother drove her to the skilled-nursing wing of the facility where, without knowing at the time, they’d see their mother for the last time.

Rasmussen remembers it was a raw, grey day. Their mother was frail. But before handing her over to nurses, they set up Zoom calls with siblings, kids and grandkids around the country, right there in the parking lot with their mother in the front seat of a van.

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Courtesy of the Rasmussen family
Cathleen Rasmussen was able to get to know her great grandchildren before she died.

“And we got them all on and I held my computer up on the dashboard there and she was able to see them all and they were able to say ‘Hey, we love you.’ We didn’t really know what was ahead, we just knew people weren’t going to be able to come visit.”

The next day, Rasmussen was taking a walk on Line Creek Trail with his wife and two dogs when he saw his mother’s number come up on his phone.

“She called and was somewhat frantic and anxious and she said ‘Norman, I need you to come and get me. I’m not where I’m supposed to be,’” his mother said.

"Well, where do you think you are?" her son asked.

“I’m at the wrong place. I think I’m at my old house, you know the one I sold,” his mother replied.

Rasmussen remembered sitting with his dying father. He recognized this state of confusion as that strange, in-between state when his dad seemed to be transitioning from living and dying.

“I finally said, ‘Mommy, we can’t come visit you, but I have this sense that where you need to go that the Lord can take you there, so why don’t we spend some time praying?'”

As he walked on the trail, praying aloud with his mother, just a few minutes from where she lay dying, he got her to calm down. She stopped feeling anxious. She didn’t call again.

“She died hours later but I felt like the peace came right then,” says Rasmussen.

Peace was harder for Rasmussen to achieve. He had gnawing, unresolved feelings, an aching sense of loss mixed with resentment that he couldn’t be with his mother when she died.

A hard kind of grief

It’s a feeling many have had during the isolation of the pandemic, says Kansas City Hospice grief counselor Lisa Farmer. She guides people to say out loud what they would’ve said to their loved ones during those last moments, to write them down or make memory books.

“It’s different,” she says. “It’s not the same as when you’re able to hold their hand but it can still be very valuable and comforting to people.”

Another distinguishing aspect of these pandemic times is the lack of ability to gather people for funerals or memorials.

Reverend Joe Walker of Country Club Christian Church says these rituals are important for a number of reasons. They give family and friends a chance to be together in their grief. They are teachable moments for young people trying to make sense of death. They provide closure for those closest to the deceased.

“That’s a moment of clarity that this person is gone and your life is really changed,” says Walker.

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A kind of epiphany

Rasmussen didn’t realize how much his life had changed, or get a bit of that clarity until he was sitting with his mother’s body, waiting for the funeral home to pick her up.

“Her mouth was slightly open, just a bit, and the corners of her mouth turned up in a little smile,” he wrote in a message he later delivered to his congregation. “I knew she had taken her last breath here on earth some hours earlier and as she did she began to smile, seeing her Lord and beginning to sing her eternal song.”

Rasmussen says this experience has also made him wonder what it will be like livnig with COVID-19 for months, maybe years, in the “new normal” will mean.

“I hope it doesn’t mean we look on each other with suspicion, so that when you walk down the street you don’t say ‘that’s the person who’s going to make me sick.’ I hope it means we start protecting one another, looking out for one another, giving each other some grace.”

Rasmussen’s family will have a celebration of their mother’s life once friends and family from around the country can attend. Before her death, Kathleen Rasmussen asked that at that celebration, her granddaughter play Claire De Lune.

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