The one ritual keeping me sane during Covid-19

David P. Gelles' parents holding hands with their grandchildren on a walk in Philadelphia in July 2019.

David Gelles is CNN's executive producer of political and special events programming. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)"This is so hard," my 4-year old daughter said to me in tears.

It was her third straight day of crying like this. "I want my friends and my toys," she said.
Just weeks after my mother died suddenly of a ruptured brain aneurysm, we were still quarantined inside my parents' house, taking care of my father who is dying of brain cancer.
    Trapped inside the house my two kids once associated with being spoiled by their grandparents, the physical space was now haunting us -- my father's illness a constant reminder that another death was looming.
      When my mother was alive, she used to entertain the kids from the moment they walked into the house until the moment they left. She always had new toys, puzzles and stuffed animals waiting for them. And she would go shopping for all their favorite foods -- mac and cheese, mangoes and ice cream -- before each visit.
        In her absence, that joy my kids once felt has disappeared.
        And while I've struggled to create new positive memories of my parents' house, I've found that having a few daily rituals helps to make the pain a bit more manageable. In my family, one ritual involves two scoops of ice cream each night. The five of us -- my dad, my wife, my kids and I -- all gather at the kitchen table, while I take orders scooping out bowls to them. Though the flavors vary, our current favorites are mint chocolate, butter pecan, peanut butter cup and caramel crunch.
          Of course, even a generous portion of ice cream can't heal a broken heart -- and my heart was already broken over losing my mother. Now my heart is breaking, preparing to lose my dad. But watching my kids grieving and suffering in isolation without many comforts of home, except for ice cream, has been my real breaking point.
          At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, it's been impossible to escape thinking about the thousands of loved ones who have been lost and not worry about the loved ones we could soon lose. Death is on everyone's minds these days. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers are all dying from this invisible killer.
          In my case, my mom didn't die of coronavirus, and my father most likely will die from his brain cancer. But as the numbers of Covid-19 deaths in the United States continue to climb past 50,000, I can't help but be overwhelmed by the pain everyone feels from losing a loved one.
          Five weeks ago, the same day we buried my mother, I signed my father up for hospice care at home. The tumor in his brain was spreading fast, and there was no way to stop it. Discontinuing medical treatment for his aggressive brain tumor made even more sense with the coronavirus lockdown underway. It just wasn't worth it to him -- the risk of catching Covid-19 while trying one more experimental treatment.
          I knew that my father was going to die -- at least since his diagnosis last June. It was a shock when we were told then and I think the grieving process began immediately. Even after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, the tumor just kept growing. In the first few days after his brain surgery in 2019, I remember thinking that maybe I could sign him up for a clinical trial that would save him. But when I finally reached the head of cancer research at National Institutes of Health, he told me over the phone that so far nothing had worked. The cancer would eventually kill him.
          On March 16, the day of my mother's funeral, while hanging up my suit in the closet, I suddenly realized that I would probably need it again. Another funeral was soon approaching, and I would be living in this house and taking care of my dad until he was buried next to my mother.
          You'd think that after 20 years as a journalist covering 9/11, the Iraq war, mass shootings and natural disasters, I wouldn't fear death -- but you'd be wrong. Even though I have produced hundreds of interviews with victims' families across the globe, death has always haunted me.
          It turns out that when it's finally your turn to lose a loved one, it hurts like you expected it would. But there's something more about the unexpected death -- the sudden loss that is much harder to believe.
          My mother was already brain dead by the time I made it to her ICU room. Her heart was still beating, but nothing in her body would ever work again. It was an "unrecoverable event," the doctor told me. When they removed her breathing tube, I held my mother's hand as a wave of sadness enveloped me. There would be no more hugs, no more words of encouragement, no more advice, the kind I would need for a moment just like this. And that unconditional love, that only a mother can give, was gone in an instant.
          Now, each day I see my father growing weaker, his body shutting down. And yet at least I feel a bit more prepared. I know it's coming.
          I asked my father the other day what he'd rather be doing right now. "Anything but this," he told me. So, to distract him -- and myself -- I turned to my new favorite activity, eating ice cream. My father, a notorious lover of sweets, perked up from the sugar rush. And, for a brief moment, I think he smiled once or twice. It turns out that ice cream could numb the pain.
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          No matter what, losing a loved one is hard. It takes time to know how to deal with the loss. It takes time to know where to turn for the love and support that was always there for you.
            When you are in mourning, you crave the comforts of home. The trouble in my parents' home right now is that it's sending all the wrong messages. Some days I'm not even sure who I should be mourning -- my mom or my dad.
            Last week, I sent my wife and kids home so they could escape this haunted house. I am still here with my dad. All I know is my father was right when he told me he'd rather be doing "anything but this" right now. That's how we all feel, so excuse me while I get us both another scoop of ice cream.