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'It's like a grief purgatory': Anger, lack of closure persists for many who lost family to COVID-19

COVID-19 & long-term grief
Posted at 7:18 AM, Sep 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-07 16:30:29-04

For so many of us, the world has, at least to some degree, opened back up.

People are dining inside, returning to their offices, and traveling again, even as COVID-19 case numbers rise across the country.

But for people who are grieving, there is no “back to normal.” Chances are you know someone who has lost a loved one during this pandemic, if you’re not among that group of millions of Americans yourself. In this story, we spoke with those who have lost and who now want to share what they continue to battle.

(The following paragraphs have been edited from longer interviews with each individual.)

Erin Hathaway

"Everybody says we’re going back to normal. When I hear that, my heart absolutely breaks. I don’t have a normal.

"[My mother] was a powerhouse of faith. You could just count on a warm smile, a unique sense of humor, warmth, love, tenderness, and strength.

"Her health had really started to fail in December, and my father just couldn’t take care of her anymore. [A few months later], they did a [COVID-19] test on her, and that’s the one that came up positive. And then, by April 13, just about five days later, she passed. We had just an update from the nurse, saying ‘We have her on meds. We’re going to keep her comfortable.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, so we’re getting through another day.’ Not even 20 minutes later, they called me that she had passed.

“I remember the scream, the crying, the anxiety, the anguish that just hit my heart and soul. Her casket did not break the border of the church. She could not be in a church. We had a cemetery service. I had to stand away from my family, and that was a heartache. It was empty, isolated, stabbing, lonely.

"I’m in counseling now. And my counselor said, 'I want you to put the face of COVID on a pillow, and I want you to just pound it out.' People are having anxiety pandemic-wise? I’m having anxiety pandemic-wise and loss-wise. Losing a parent by COVID is, it’s like it’s layered. We were robbed of so much. But I’m happy to say I’m stronger now. I can feel it.”

Kasandra Raux

“Never in a million years did I think my brother was going to die.

“We were putting our kids to bed, and I got a phone call from the doctor, and he said, ‘Listen, your brother is coding.’ I feel like I still haven’t been able to properly grieve. If you had a funeral with people, it was limited to maybe 5-10 people with social distancing. I come from a Puerto Rican family. We’re very big on being together, mourning together, and that was nowhere in the realm of possibility. I was essentially all alone in grieving.

“The current climate is very hard to live in and, you know, I think the grief we’re experiencing is especially more difficult because there’s no way to really move on. It’s a constant reminder on the news, on social media. It’s in your face 24/7. So there’s just, it can be really overwhelming.

“It makes me very angry. There are those five stages of grief. And you know, one of them is anger. And I feel like I’m perpetually in that state of anger because of so many, you know, people like anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers.

“I harbor a lot of anger and resentment. It blows my mind that people know that there’s something they can do to be proactive, and they refuse. When people say, ‘Oh, you know, my freedoms, my freedoms,’ it feels like a slap to the face. Like, these are your fellow Americans. These are your neighbors. These are people on the street. These are real families who have lost someone. It just feels like they’re making a mockery of our loss.

"I feel like it’s my responsibility as my brother’s youngest sister to share this story, to share what happened to us."

Beth Weibel

"My mother was an executive director of the Girl Scouts for 18 years. She volunteered for vulnerable children in the court system, the foster care system.

"Muskogee, Oklahoma, is where my family is. They ended up having to take my mom in a helicopter to Fort Smith, Arkansas, because there weren’t any COVID beds. She died November the 24th, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

"I'm trying not to worry about so many things that don’t really matter in the long run. There are days where it’s like, you think about something and I’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, Mom would have found that hilarious.’ You just gotta find, within yourself, ways to comfort yourself. And sometimes you can do it by yourself, but a lot of times you can’t.

“This weekend would have been my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and my dad chose that day for us to have a service. My dad ordered a whole bunch of daisies because that was the wedding flower that they had. My brothers and I said something, and I was really glad we did it. It was perfect.

“I realized it, really even before she passed. It was kind of like, ‘Things aren’t going to be the same, ever.’ I feel like things will never be back to normal for everybody, but especially, you know, for people who have lost somebody.”

Angelina Proia

"I was a daddy's girl. I always had been. He lived in Rochester, New York. I live in New York. So, he would come and we would go on these adventures in the city. We would have New York pizza and we would go to Coney Island.

“Someone found him in his apartment and they immediately rushed him to the hospital. He came back COVID positive, and he was on a ventilator for 10 days. He never came off.

"I had to say goodbye to my dad over the phone. I, I had to tell him that I loved him and I was sorry and it was OK if he wanted to go, and that I’m sorry I couldn’t be there. We didn’t get to see him. I didn’t get to see him.

"I get really jealous when I hear about people having funerals and having calling hours and viewers and being able to be there with their loved ones when they’re gone. When we buried [my father], we buried his ashes and the priest came and said a mass. But he was only there for five minutes tops. We were all in our cars or watching from Zoom. It just didn’t feel like we gave my father the proper respect that he deserved.

"It leaves something in limbo – like a purgatory, a grief purgatory – and it’ll always kind of be there."

Alicia Arredondo

“I don’t want my father to just become a statistical number, you know, one in a sea of hundreds of thousands at this point.

“It’s genuine trauma. It’s not just the pain of losing a parent. I think the experience in and of itself was traumatic. It's the trauma of knowing that a person that you loved experienced this by himself, in complete isolation. There are still moments where it’s like it almost never happened because it was so surreal.

“The most unfortunate thing that ever happened to us is that we politicized this whole situation. We just allowed ourselves to politicize the entire experience and totally made it into an individual ideology and completely took the humanity out of it. People are still like, ‘I don’t know that I believe this is real,’ or, ‘I don’t know that I need to get vaccinated,’ or, ‘I don’t need to wear a mask, because you’re infringing on my rights.’ And I'm like, ‘Actually, like, people have truly died.'

“I never got to escape the subject. I mean, we talk about COVID at least 100 times a day. It's just never-ending. I’m not trying to be this super-gloomy human being or anything, but I make it a point to say, ‘Yeah, that was really hard for me, and I can’t pretend that it wasn’t.’”

Rocco Deserto

“My mom was 63. She had no business dying.

"She worked at a doctor’s office. Someone came in with full-fledged symptoms, no mask. And that was it. Within a day of being in the hospital, she was on a ventilator. Within three days of being on a ventilator, she was dead.

“That was a little over a year ago, but every single day you relive it because everyone has a comment about COVID. Everybody. And they just don’t get it. No one gets it.

"My mom’s cousins will share memes and posts minimizing the virus, knowing they lost a cousin to the virus. And it’s like a slap in the face to my mother. Every day, you log into social media, people are talking negatively about COVID and minimizing it, and saying it’s not that serious. When someone says, 'Only the weak die of COVID,' I’m hearing, ‘Your mother was weak. That’s why she died of COVID.’

“Imagine you lost someone to a heart attack and then, for the rest of your life, you just hear people saying, ‘Heart attacks are fake. No one actually dies from heart attacks.’ Listen, 615,000 people died. You’re going to run into someone who lost someone. How are we so free to criticize?

“We just have a heartless society, and it’s crazy. And that’s what – it’s just rubbed in your face all day long.”

Davida Price

“I’m here to share my story about the passing of both of my parents. It has been the most traumatic experience I’ve ever had.

"There are people who know what happened to my parents and still don’t believe this is real. Every day, I’m reminded, because of the talk on the television and in the community. I stopped watching the TV for a while, because never in my life would I have thought those numbers [of those who lost lives to COVID-19] would have included my parents. Having to listen to the debate and know that I won’t get my parents back, it has traumatized me.

"I still am struggling. I’ve gone through counseling. But I am triggered by the conversation and when people talk about things getting back to normal. There won’t be a normal for me and my family."