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FIRSTS: My First Pandemic Death

Writing by Ella Mitchell // illustration by Nea Valdivia

‘Firsts’ is Ella Mitchell’s series of stories that delve into the transformative power of life-changing, first-time experiences, offering insights into the complex emotions they evoke. This is her first pandemic death experience.

During Melbourne’s lockdown, my neighbours proved themselves to be kind. Households left out books, cut herbs, and citrus fruits curb-side. Street after street had offerings paired with colourful kids’ drawings and fun hand-painted signs proclaiming: ‘Make lockdown lemons into lemonade!’ which entertained while highlighting our shared existential crisis.

Across the road, Judy, an older single lady, lived in her ramshackle house. She looked like a witch from a picture book; all dressed in black, with long grey hair trailing down her back.

Across the days, months, and eventually years of lockdown, we started to talk when our paths crossed on bin night. We’d discuss the latest ABC news headlines, local and global death counts, food shortages, the weather, the increase of birdsong, and books.

I started to look forward to this weekly check-in and noticed when one day, she missed bin night. Should I knock on her door? Or would that be over-anxious and intrusive?

A few days later, I saw her crossing her driveway and I walked across the street to greet her. Standing on the other side of the short fence I smelt it. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but it was gut-wrenching. A smell so strong it affected my thinking. I asked her how she was and if I could get her anything at the shops. She thanked me and shook her pale face. Concerned, I asked if she still had my phone number and encouraged her to use it.

The next morning an ambulance came and I remember how the young male attendant looked as I crossed the road to meet him. I knew he could smell it too and that is when I realised that the smell was death.

For the next six weeks, I visited Judy in the Sunshine Hospital palliative care unit, piecing together more of her life-story over the visits, amazed that no one else came and that no family arrived to say goodbye.

The nurses were curious about her too, who was she? Why did no one come? We traded titbits, seeking to make sense of the unknowable, to help as we contemplated other people’s lives.

“She said she saw her mother”, one nurse said, “by the end of her bed.”

“She was close to her mother” I replied, “her mother had her young and they lived together until about a decade ago.”

“They often report seeing their loved ones near the end,” another nurse chimed in.

“She has been strong but it won’t be long,” said another.

When she died on a Tuesday morning, our suburb’s bin day, it felt deliberate. Like one last insight into her character, one last friendly wave from across the street, and a sadness that I didn’t understand engulfed me.

She was not family or even really a friend. But she was kind, alone, and vulnerable. She was a familiar face and consistent heartbeat during an irregular and challenging time. And when death loomed large before us all, she walked uncomplaining into its night.

When I attended her funeral I was the only one there. And as the attendants lowered her coffin into the ground, I wept. I cried in respect of death, the final moment that comes for us all. I cried for the aloneness of it. And to release a tension, the dreaded expectation, that had been lurking for so many weeks.

Judy was one of 91,015 Australian women who died in 2022. Today her house has been painted and renovated, it has a new white picket fence and a large multi-generational family who come and go in the hustle and bustle of post-lockdown life.

I still think of her on bin night.

Do you have a story about a first-death experience? Please share it with us

Andrea (Nea) Valdivia

Andrea, also known as Nea Valdivia, is a Peruvian illustrator based in Melbourne, Australia. She’s passionate about using her art to make different statements and especially loves creating colorful characters that tell a story in an aesthetically pleasing way. You can find her on Instagram as or on her website,

Ella Mitchell

Ella Mitchell is a Melbourne-based Australian communications producer. She is a writer and photographer, and works with multi-disciplinary teams to produce marketing materials and campaigns for national clients predominantly in the arts, education, and not-for-profit sectors. Find Ella on Instagram @ellamitchell

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