by SARAH WEGLARZ - October 15, 2020 - I lost someone, but not during the pandemic. Here’s how my grief was different.
As the coronavirus made its mark on the United States and its healthcare system, hundreds of thousands of families have experienced the devastating loss of a loved one. I’ve read and heard stories of saying FaceTime goodbyes, hospital staff appalled at the lack of support they’ve received, refrigerated truck morgues behind the Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York, and the pop up field hospitals in places like Central Park. I cannot say I have lost a family member to COVID-19. However, about a year and a half ago, when I was 16, I lost my 5-year-old sister to a sudden, unknown illness. Her symptoms were similar to the flu, but one morning, she became quite lethargic, so my family and I took her to the hospital just as a precaution, not realizing something much more serious was at play. After about 45 minutes, her heart stopped, the doctors began CPR, and a whirlwind of flying syringes, scrubs, and shouting surrounded me as I stood outside the exam room. Within an hour, she was gone. To this day, no one really seems to know what happened to my sister. Following a full autopsy, the doctors could only surmise, based on her symptoms, that she had succumbed to an unknown virus.
My family was left with a gaping hole in our household. There were five chairs at the table but only four people to fill them. My sister’s toys were still scattered throughout the family room, and her calendar, with cold January days marked off, still hung by her bed. Early on, I experienced nightmares and flashbacks of the events at the hospital, and like most who have encountered the death of an immediate family member, my emotions changed constantly. Anxiety, anger, exhaustion, and extreme sadness were all part of my daily existence.
A little over a year later, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States and around the world began to rise—first 4,000, then 12,000, now almost 200,000 deaths globally. Death tends to seem more insignificant when it’s just a number, but behind each of those numbers is a grieving family. A daughter who lost a mother, a father who lost a son. I found myself feeling despaired and saddened for those families coping with grief, especially in the midst of such chaos. I also began to realize that although our family’s journey through grief was difficult, we were able to say our goodbyes in person. My entire extended family was able to come to the hospital and tell Cate how much they loved her. We were given a private room to grieve and spend time with each other. Families of COVID victims are rarely given these comforts after the death of a loved one.
So, if you know someone who is grieving in silence, let them know that they have not been forgotten. Even though you may not be able to put yourself in their shoes, you can certainly still be there to listen. Grief is a heavy emotion, and no one should have to carry it alone. Now is the time to lift each other up and share in each other’s grief, especially with all of the loss that both our community and our country have recently endured. As Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So make people feel loved. Make people feel like their grief is valid. Make people feel like no matter what life throws at them, you will be right by their side every step of the way.