Kelly Brown’s 74-year-old father got sick first with COVID-19, followed by her 71-year-old mom just two days later. John and Judy Trzebiatowski died of the illness just a week apart last August, sending Brown into a black tunnel of grief that doesn’t seem to have an end.
Health restrictions stripped away the things that normally help people deal with death, such as bedside visits at the Wisconsin hospital where they were treated and a big funeral with hugs and tears, she said. That left Brown to deal with her sorrow on her own, and now she’s having a hard time seeing a way forward.
With more than 605,000 dead of COVID-19 in the United States and nearly 4 million worldwide, Brown is among the thousands or more who could be experiencing prolonged grief, the kind of mourning that experts say can prevent people from moving beyond a death and functioning normally again.
"It's the most horrible thing to have to go through," said Brown. "I would not wish this upon anyone."
Natalia Skritskaya, an expert on grieving, said it's too early to say whether prolonged grieving, also known as complicated grief, will be a major complication from the pandemic — it isn't yet over, with thousands still dying daily worldwide, including hundreds in the United States. Many mourners have yet to pass the one-year anniversary of a loss, and few studies have been published so far on the psychiatric fallout, she said.
But prolonged grief is both real and potentially debilitating, said Skritskaya, a research scientist and clinical psychologist with the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University in New York She noted that it can be treated with therapy in which participants talk through their experience and feelings.
"The core of it is kind of helping people face the reality of what happened," she said. "It's not an easy treatment. It's intense."
Jerri Vance said therapy has helped her deal with grief since her husband, James Vance, a retired police officer in Bluefield, West Virginia, died of COVID-19 on New Year’s Day, but she worries about their two young daughters.
"Seeing my kids’ grief adds to my pain," she said. " One of my kids isn't making much progress in therapy because her daddy was her person. She is still mad at the world."
A study published in the fall predicted a likely increase in cases of prolonged grief linked to the pandemic. Already, people who lost loved ones to COVID-19 are filling social media pages with stories of tears and sadness that just won’t go away.
Many cite the loss of typical end-of-life rituals for their continual grieving; some struggle because of the unexpectedness and seeming unfairness of the coronavirus. The politicization of the pandemic is a thorn for many who constantly see and hear some argue against what health experts say are life-saving practices including vaccinations, mask wearing and social distancing.
"In my office I listen all day to unsolicited opinions and try not to engage, as it is unprofessional," said Betsy Utnick, whose father, Sheldon Polan of Selden, New York, died in April 2020. She said she still cries every day because the grief has yet to subside.
Noreen Wasti knows the feeling. She lost her father to the illness caused by the coronavirus on Dec. 27 and is having a hard time going on.
Wasti, who writes and creates online content in New York, said she’s unsure what it will take to get over the loss of Salman Wasti, 76, a retired biology professor from Glocester, Rhode Island.
"This has been the first time I've lost someone so dear to me, so I never had a map for grief nor really understood the magnitude. I always thought you're sad for a few months and then you're OK. I was so wrong,” she said. “It hits in waves and those waves feel as severe as the day we lost him."
With so many people hurting and little personal interaction for months because of pandemic health restrictions, social media has become the place where many connect to share stories of loved ones and loss. One private Facebook page dealing with COVID-19 losses has more than 10,000 members, and continuing grief is a constant thread of discussion.
Rabia Khan has found solace online since the death on Thanksgiving Day of her father, Pakistani activist Muhammad Hameedullah Khan of Chicago. In survivor and family groups, she said, the grieving don’t face insensitive questions about how a loved one contracted the virus or why someone wasn’t careful enough to avoid it.
Aside from sharing stories online of her late boyfriend Ben Schaeffer, a New York subway conductor and historian, Lisa Smid has tried to redirect her anguish into something positive. She sponsored an online lecture at the New York Transit Museum and plans to honor his legacy by endowing more memorial lectures.
"I like being able to have an event to look forward to at which I'll have an acceptable outlet for my grief as I move forward with my own life," she said.
Ann Haas of St. Paul, Minnesota, is still trying to find some sort of outlet as she mourns, but work keeps bringing her back to the worst day of her life.
Haas lost her father, Raymond Haas, to COVID-19 on Nov. 11 and works in the laundry at the same Veterans Affairs hospital where he spent his final days. Haas said memories coming flooding back each time she folds a tan blanket like the one that covered him while he was fighting to live.
"'I wish other people could see what this does to people. I hear people saying, 'This isn't real, it's nothing,'" Haas said between sobs. "I've got nothing left. I don't know if it's going to take them losing someone to understand."
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