Grieving Through the Pandemic

For those who lost loved ones at the beginning of lockdown in the U.S, the past few months have been a particular hell.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Pankova/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This is part of Six Months In, a Slate series reflecting on half a year of coronavirus lockdown in America.

If one of your loved ones died in the early days of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, it was a unique horror to experience the onslaught of pandemic headlines and White House press conferences and CDC warnings while also mourning a very personal loss. Some family members spent months obsessively researching, trying to understand everything about the virus that killed their parent or sibling or spouse. Some found themselves at the center of a burst of public attention as the media covered the first American deaths linked to COVID—and when that spotlight faded, they suddenly felt lonelier than ever. Slate talked to three people who lost family this past March about what it’s been like to grieve through everything. The interviews have been lightly edited and condensed.

Marya Sherron, 46, a former professor of Black studies in Indianapolis, whose brother, Kious Kelly, a nurse at Mount Sinai West in Manhattan, died on March 24 at age 48.

I found out on March 18. My family and I were in Phoenix on spring break. Kious—I’ve always called him James—sent me a text message saying he was in the ICU. I asked him if he had COVID. He said yes, and he said, “don’t tell Mom and Dad [I’m in the ICU]. I’m OK.” He gave me the number of his doctor in New York. And then he said he had to go because he was really tired and he couldn’t breathe. He choked if he talked. He’d already told our parents that he had COVID. So I called them and said, “Have you talked to him?” And my dad was saying: “Yeah, he’s got that COVID thing. Everything’s going to be fine.”

I reached out to his doctor there, and she and I were touching base the next three days. On Sunday, the 22nd, I didn’t hear from his doctor. First thing Monday morning I called the hospital. They said they would call me and give me updates, and a little after 8 p.m. I get a phone call. The nurse sounded really young, and she was really frantic and there was a bunch of medical jargon I didn’t understand: things they tried, and medications. And then she just said, “Well, he’s actively dying, and he probably won’t make it through the night.” I’ve never heard that term before. I don’t know even what that means.

She ended up putting me on the phone with the doctor. I was basically saying, “Should I drive there?” I heard he might not make it through the night, but he could—I’m very strong in my faith, and I know things are possible. The doctor was very nice. But he said, “This is the last place you want to drive into.” He said, “We don’t want one tragedy to turn into two.” That night was‚ I’m sure you can imagine, just hellacious. I haven’t even told my parents he’s in the ICU yet. He made it through the night. I told my parents in the morning, and my parents called the hospital and became first point of contact. That evening, my mom was the one who called to tell me he’d died.

There was a lot of chaos while getting him home. Finally, my father paid someone to drive to New York and get his body. When he initially died, you could have a service with 50 people, but by the time we got him home to Michigan, they cut it down to 10. We decided we couldn’t ask anyone to travel to a funeral. So it would just be us. The day you discover the death you might think is the worst day. But the worst day by far was his burial, for me. It was cold and gray and nobody was there. There are no stories or memories, nothing that you associate with the celebration of a life. It was just so sad to put him in the ground and walk away.

My brother dies on a Tuesday. Wednesday morning, I wake up, and I’ve got emails and texts from maybe 10 different places. And one of them was Chris Cuomo at CNN, and the other was the New York Post for an article about how the hospital where my brother worked was using trash bags as personal protective equipment. I hadn’t known about the PPE shortage. I went to my brother’s Facebook page and saw one of his colleagues comment that the hospital had murdered him. I reached out to a couple of my brother’s co-workers. I’m asking questions. What happened? Why would you think that the hospital is responsible?

I did an interview with Chris Cuomo on CNN, and that seemed to open the floodgates. NBC, MSNBC, many others. The next few days were a storm. And it wasn’t just the media reaching out. I got emails and text messages from medical workers from Maine to California sharing their own lack of PPE. I decided, any interview that I did, I want to talk about PPE. I was in lifesaving mode. Yes, I will share his story. But you have your agenda, and I have mine. I was very aware that doing interviews was a form of denial. I am so busy doing interviews that I do not have to think about what has really happened. Eventually it shifted, and people weren’t as interested in the PPE. They were interested in his life. And that’s what I hadn’t really dealt with yet.

There was a good 10-day period when I didn’t hear from anyone, and I remember feeling really used. It’s like, “OK, done here, on to the next story.” I wanted a break, but I wanted to say no. It’s not like anybody’s obligated to call me for a story, but I felt—I’m not sure‚ forgotten? I know reporters can’t follow up with everything, logistically. But there were a few interviews where I really shared more than with anyone else, and I think maybe there was some expectation they would drop me a text message and ask, “How’s your family?” Anything other than just the story. That’s just emotion; I don’t think that’s logical. But I did have that feeling.

George Floyd is the marker where I just cried for two weeks straight, every single day. Ahmaud Arbery was killed in February. And then you have Floyd around Memorial Day. And at the same time, you’re getting all of these reports about how COVID is affecting the Black community in such a different way. I was afraid for my husband: He’s got a ministry and he’s trying to feed people during the pandemic. I’m yelling at him, “Don’t go out, you’re going to get corona,” or “I’m afraid you’re going to get shot by a police officer.” I wouldn’t let my oldest son drive. It was very dark. I felt like I was going to lose the people I loved.

I ended up looking up the seven steps of grieving. It was like I held it for three months, and I just fell apart for those two weeks. It wasn’t like that one cry, and you got to get that out. It lasted. Every day it just felt like life was over. It was terrible. And I’m here at home with my kids and my husband and I’m trying to not be there, but boy was I there.

I’ve been doing better. I’ve started writing fiction. I’m home-schooling our 10-year-old. I’m trying to stay busy. I miss my brother’s energy. He’s the type of person who is like he just had sunshine behind him. Any space you’re in, he walked in, it’s brighter. He was very real and funny. He’d tell me when I’d put on a couple pounds; he kept me in line. He was a hoot. I miss him calling me “baby girl.” I loved when he said that. I think about calling him and being upset about something and he’d just sit and listen and say, “It’s going to be OK, baby girl.”

I don’t know what normal grieving is. All I know is this. I have a bag in my kitchen of cards from strangers. And I have a community of people who take the time to actually check up on me. You’re weighted down, and it’s so heavy. And then someone’s just like, “Hey, thinking about you today,” and it is comforting and very beautiful.

Elvaughn Riley, 28, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee student and Navy veteran, whose father, Lawrence Riley, a veteran and retired firefighter, died on March 20 at age 66 in Milwaukee.

He died on a Wednesday. That Friday, he’d started showing flu-like symptoms; he was just bedridden and couldn’t get up. He thought it was just the flu, because the coronavirus was new and that was the last thing on his mind. We can’t pinpoint how he got it or when he got it. We just don’t know. My mom finally said, “OK, you’re still feeling bad, we’re going take you to the hospital.” She took him on Monday. The hospital put him on a ventilator-induced coma. And on that Wednesday he died. I had moved out of the house. I wasn’t there to see my father take his final breath. I wasn’t even there to see him get sick.

I got a Facebook message from local news after my dad passed. With him being the first one in the city to die from the virus, it was really big. The media was coming full force. I couldn’t really digest what had happened. I was doing interviews because my mom couldn’t do it. She was just distraught. My dad was an iron man. He got hit by a car. When he was younger, he fell through a roof because he was a firefighter. I had never seen him be weak at any point in his life. To me, he was invincible. So for him to be gone like that—I never would have seen that coming. So that was a very hard pill to swallow.

When I announced, “Hey, my dad had COVID” and put the first media article out there on my Facebook page, a lot of people started taking it very seriously. A lot of the COVID memes I saw went down, and now people were like: “Oh, this is real. Elvaughn just lost his father.” So there was the sense of urgency. The media attention lasted a couple of months. My dad was such a big person in the community. A couple months ago, we talked to Oprah; that’s how big it got. I didn’t mind it at all: I’m used to sharing my dad. Some of my friends would call my dad “Dad” because they didn’t have fathers.

On July 31, we had a social distanced memorial for him. The whole weekend we had events to honor him. Wisconsin state Sen. Lena Taylor came to one of the events. Growing up, my dad would tell me all the time: “If I ever pass away, give me more of a celebration of my life. I want people to be together and happy.” So we did our best to give him the home going he wanted. We were able to do the food prepackaged. Everyone was eating good and just having a good time. There were tears, but at the same time, I think we really did him proud.

I think one day I will come to that grieving process and I will finally have my chance to find healing. But now, I’m focused on learning everything I can about this disease and trying to get answers. That’s what got me back into school. I study political science. I feel that, in a way, COVID could have been prevented by our leaders. So I use that as motivation. Because I’m angry. I want my dad to still be here. I want him to be able to see his grandkids, and see me when I get married, or walk my little sister down the aisle where she gets married.

I’m angry at myself for not taking COVID more seriously. Maybe I could have prevented something. Maybe I could have been like, “Hey, this pandemic is coming to the United States.” I could have called my mom and my dad, like: “How about y’all stay in the house? And anything y’all need, I’ll go get it.” The nurses at the hospital were amazing, and they always kept us in tune to what was going on with my dad, and I appreciate that, but the whole induced coma—was there any other form of treatment that could have been done to keep him alive? It’s a lot of questions.

Sometimes I do turn off the news when certain people get on and say certain stuff. But I do want to get any new research I can get, because I want to know what took my dad’s life. My dad raised me to always do your due diligence. As a kid he threw books at me—books I shouldn’t have been reading as a kid. Eight years old reading about Odysseus in Greek mythology. I wanted to read Cat in the Hat.

My dad has altogether seven kids, and I’m No. 5. But I think me and him are more alike than any of my other siblings. We both went into the Navy and had exact same job in the Navy. I can never fill his shoes. I can only hope to be as good as he was. There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about my pops. But now I’m just focused on being the best man I can be for my family. Taking care of my mother is my main focus. I miss him to death. One day I’ll have a moment to finally grieve. When he looks down on us, I want him to see I’m going to school, trying to achieve goals. Now we’ve just got to show him, “Thank you for the lessons while you were here.” And he’s well known around the city, so when people see us, it’s “Oh, those are Larry’s kids.” We want to hold that to a standard, to be seen as high-quality individuals. So that’s the goal.

Corneill Stephens, professor of law at Georgia State University, 68, whose wife, Rushia Stephens, a music teacher, died on March 19 at age 65 in DeKalb County, Georgia.

My wife has annual sinus infections because of the pollen. She had an appointment with the EMT doctor March 12 just to get some sinus medication. And they said: “Oh, you have a temperature. We can’t see you. You need to go to Emory Hospital to check for coronavirus.” At Emory, they gave her a very thin mask and put her in a room with the other people who are going to be tested. She wasn’t coughing; she had no symptoms other than a temperature. I was teaching that night. My class is over about 9, and I called her, and she said: “I’m still at Emory. I’ve been here since 2 p.m. with all these coughing people.” I got there around 10. They told her she tested negative for the flu. She said, “How about the coronavirus?” They said, “Well we don’t have enough tests. The only people we’re testing are people who have been admitted to the hospital. Since you have no symptoms, we can’t admit you to the hospital.”

I mean, what do you say to that? So we go home. That was on a Thursday. On Monday, she developed a cough. Now of course, we felt like that came from sitting in that place for eight hours with very little ventilation and coughing people. She had a feeling of lethargy. I said we needed to go back to the hospital, and she said, “No, I’m not going back there and waiting for another eight hours just for them to send me back home.” Tuesday, she looked a little better. Wednesday, she had a cough and a fever and feeling of weakness. At the time she was 65, but she was healthy. She exercised regularly. I mean, she was fanatic about diet. She took supplements.

Thursday morning, she said, “I feel better.” I said: “Well, OK, now this has been three days. I’m going to call the emergency room just to see what we should do.” So I call the emergency room, and the phone is ringing, and she says, “I think I need to go to the hospital.” I was shocked. She was sitting on the edge of the bed. I just thought she needed someone to help her up, so I went to help. At that point she just collapsed. I called 911.

First, the fire people came out. I heard the siren, and I went to the front door to let them in. And they’re just sitting out there. One gets out, and another one, and they start putting on these hazmat suits. It seemed like forever. Then the ambulance came along. Two people came out while the firemen were still putting on hazmat suits. When she collapsed, her eyes were open, but she was not responsive. They put her on oxygen and within a couple of minutes, she became responsive.

I followed them to the emergency room. They said she was very alert, she was fine. I sat outside her room. And then the doctor kept rushing in and out. So I got a little bit concerned. And then he came out and said, “She’s very unstable.” Very curt. A couple minutes later he rushed back in and I heard him yell, “All hands on deck,” and then multiple people start coming in. They closed the curtains. And he came out and said, “Let’s go in a room, we need to talk.” And he said that her heart had stopped, they got it going, it stopped a second time, they got it going again, and it stopped a third time. And they did everything we could, but they couldn’t get the pulse. An hour after she got to the hospital, she’s gone.

I didn’t know how to react. This is something you’re not prepared for. It’s hard to process the sudden death of somebody you’re really close to—the person you’re closest to in life—who’s healthy one minute, and you take them to the hospital and they’re gone.

They did an autopsy and determined that she had acute respiratory distress syndrome caused by the coronavirus, and it also caused her to have both viral and bacterial pneumonia. My son’s a doctor, and he had them take X-rays of me, and they saw something on my lungs. They kept me overnight. They said I might have pneumonia. This is the same night—my wife died that afternoon. I’m in the hospital, and I start having diarrhea, which people found out later that was one of the symptoms of the coronavirus. I had a very slight cough. My two sons went to my house and sterilized and disinfected everything. That morning when I got home, I got a temperature. My cough was getting worse. My son was on his listservs and chatrooms with his doctor friends, and one thing they told him was the virus seemed to be more aggressive with people who were resting. So my son had me walking up and down the steps every hour. He was monitoring me and would come over and sit outside with my other son all day long. I didn’t need hospitalization. After a week, it was like a light switch. The diarrhea stopped. There was no fever. My oxygen went up.

I wasn’t able to go my wife’s funeral. I was able to say something, but at the time—I don’t know if it was part of the coronavirus or part of grieving, but mentally, I was totally out of it. I would get up in the morning, have the television on, and suddenly it’s 10 o’clock at night and I had no recollection of what I did all day. I’d be talking to my sons all day, and I wouldn’t remember what we talked about. And I don’t have a recollection of what I said at the funeral, except that I listened back to it.

You just kind of take for granted a person’s always going to be here. She did everything for her mother and her daughter and son. She was their rock. They’ve come to rely on her. And I had come to rely on her. And then when that goes, it’s like, what am I going to do now? If I need advice, if I need wisdom, where do I go now?

I’m learning to deal with it. Before all this happened, I signed up to teach summer school. And students had already registered so I had an obligation—which, no way, if I’d known, would I have signed up for it. But I think that helped immensely. It gave me something to focus on in that period. And I think it helped me mentally reclaim my faculties. It kind of reinforces the unfortunate (or maybe it’s fortunate) reality that—and this is going to sound trite—life goes on, and either you go on with it or you don’t survive.

I have become hypersensitive to the coronavirus for obvious reasons, and I’ve probably become a bit of a fanatic. When I go out (which is rare) in public, I wear an N95. If I’m going into a building and someone’s not wearing a mask, I don’t go into that building. If I get groceries, I wipe down all the groceries with the disinfectant or a bleach solution that I’ve concocted. I have inside clothes and outside clothes. My sons, when they come over, wear masks and stay 6 feet away. It’s very difficult. We’re a hugging family.

I miss the warmth. I miss the love. She would always preface everything with “sweetness”: “Sweetness, can you do this? Sweetness, did you see this movie?” I miss that greeting, which I didn’t think anything about when it was occurring. I miss hearing what she did that day, and I miss telling her what I did today. I miss laughing at the things happening in our lives. I just miss her presence.