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Kurt Fischer died Monday. His family will never know if it was COVID-19

This pandemic has transformed the way we live, and the way we die.

Kurt Fischer, an emeritus professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, died March 30th.
Kurt Fischer, an emeritus professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, died March 30th.Handout photo (custom credit)/Handout

Kurt Fischer’s casket was lowered into the ground at Highland Meadow Cemetery in Belmont on Friday morning. No minister attended. Only Fischer’s wife, a friend, and one of his daughters were there. They couldn’t hug each other. His other children watched via FaceTime.

They don’t know what caused his death, and never will.

This pandemic has transformed the way we live, and the way we die.

Before, Kurt Fischer’s send-off would have matched the giant life he lived. He was a longtime and beloved professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a pioneer in the connections between neuroscience and learning. On Instagram, one former student wrote that he was “like Einstein crossed with Mr. Rogers.”

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“He was reserved, and didn’t look for credit for things,” said his son Seth Fischer, a writer in Los Angeles. “He would be very embarrassed to have me talking to you like this.”

Kurt Fischer was a devoted father, his son said. He was inordinately rigid in his prohibition against the consumption of chocolate by children after 6 p.m. He was also a goofball who, long after the kids were little, would put napkins on his head at dinner to make them laugh. He found his own, worn-out dad jokes hilarious: If you made the mistake of saying you were jumping in the shower, he’d always say, “Don’t hit your head!”

By 2014, his wife, Jane Haltiwanger Fischer, recalled, the brilliant educator’s cognitive decline was undeniable even, at last, to himself, and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In 2018, he was moved to Rogerson House, a memory care facility in Jamaica Plain. His family was happy with his care there, and grateful for it. The disease progressed, piling up its typical cruelties and indignities. But it was clear his caregivers loved him, and that he loved them back.

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“He still had his smile, his heart, the kindness,” she said. “I fell in love with his mind.…But he was a beautiful soul.”

Caring for patients with dementia is strenuous work in the best of times. Doing so in the midst of a terrifying virus outbreak — with patients who wander, need help with hygiene, can bite or spit, and have trouble understanding or complying with instructions — is nearly impossible. Rogerson House closed to visitors in mid-March, and residents spent more time apart from each other, in their rooms. Caregivers wore the protective gear they had, and took distancing measures to avoid contagion.

Still, a staff member on Kurt’s floor, with whom the family had come into contact, showed signs of the illness on March 16, and was later diagnosed with COVID-19. Around the same time, a resident on the same floor was taken to the hospital and died of the illness March 20.

The family repeatedly urged staff to test all of the residents on that floor for the illness, and, like so many caught up in the catastrophic, national failure of our testing system, was told that was impossible. (Rogerson House did not respond to a request for comment.) The family was terrified Kurt had been exposed to the virus, and feared they might have been infected themselves. His wife, who saw him only twice in that period, via FaceTime, worried he would feel abandoned without her frequent visits.

On the morning of March 30, staff called Jane to tell her Kurt was in respiratory distress. He died before she made it the five blocks from her home to his room.

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His family wanted to know for sure if COVID-19 had caused his death. If he had the virus, then it’s important that the rest of us to know it, too. We have failed so miserably to track its course that, when this pandemic is finally over, many of its victims will go uncounted.

But the Fischer family could not get a test, because Kurt had shown no other symptoms apart from the severe respiratory distress that ended his life. They spent days appealing to Rogerson House, hospitals, the city, and the state — hours of calling, and getting conflicting messages, and unconvincing explanations, from people who were overwhelmed and utterly exhausted by a crisis that was just beginning. Anger and uncertainty compounded their grief.

How do they grieve now, anyway? They can’t even properly comfort one another.

“This isn’t my first loss,” Seth said. “But this is my first loss where they say, ‘Do you want to see the body via FaceTime?’” The funeral, and a tribute by Kurt’s students, were to take place over Zoom this weekend.

Those who loved him have no choice but to come to terms with the mystery of his death.

“I’m in as much peace as I can be,” Jane said. “He’s gone, and we have to release him. I want his soul to go forward in peace and light. But I do wonder.”

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There will be a proper tribute at some point, Seth said, “once we can all see humans again, and everybody can be there and hug each other."

He paused. “If we ever get back to that world."



Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.