The lost Americans

A widow in North Carolina whose husband died of COVID-19 feels crushed when she hears people talk casually about life in America returning to normal.

>> Julie BosmanThe New York Times
Published : 16 May 2022, 06:49 AM
Updated : 16 May 2022, 06:49 AM

A man in New York City who lost his wife to COVID-19 ruminates on the days before she got sick two years ago. He worries that he brought the virus into their apartment, wonders if her death was his fault.

A woman in Minnesota whose mother died of the coronavirus is mired in what she calls “COVID grief.” It deepens when she sees the pandemic mentioned on Facebook, when someone says how happy they are to be reuniting with loved ones again, when she is forced to listen to chatter of masks or politics or vaccines.

“There’s a reminder of how she died, literally every single day, multiple times a day,” said Erin Reiner, whose mother, Gwen Wilson, was a champion bowler and quilter in Kansas until her death at the age of 72.

For more than two years, Americans have made their way through a pandemic that has upended plans, brought tumult and despair, and sickened millions.

But one group has been forced onto a separate path. These are the loved ones of the nearly 1 million people in the United States who have died of COVID-19.

These families have walked a path in isolation, mourning and anger. They are carrying a grief that feels lonely, permanent and agonisingly removed from the country’s shared journey.

To these Americans, there are the people who lost someone to COVID-19 and the people who did not.

“They can’t walk in our shoes,” Reiner said. “For us, the pandemic isn’t just this blip in our history. People talk about it like it’s such an inconvenience — we don’t get to do this, we don’t get to have this celebration. I only wish that’s all it was for us, for me, for the countless other families.”

CHAOS, CONFUSION AND FEAR

In spring 2020, Shubham Chandra was fearful over the sudden illness of his father, Dr Mukul Chandra. The coronavirus was spreading, a terrifying and little understood threat. Coronavirus tests were scarce and hospitals were inundated.

Then he was faced with a fresh agony: The hospital would not allow him to visit his father throughout his battle with COVID-19.

Because Mukul Chandra’s family members could not see him in person, they recorded cassette tapes of their voices and mailed them to the hospital. Nurses played the tapes at his bedside.

“We believed that hearing our voices would be the thing that called him back from the edge,” Shubham Chandra said. “I would have given anything in the world to just be sitting by his side and telling him, ‘Dad, I love you, you’re going to make it through this.’”

In the confounding days of April 2020, Laura Jackson had already cancelled a 50th birthday party in Miami for her husband, Charlie, an Army veteran. When he developed a cough and fever, Jackson, who heard that private hospitals were so full that they were turning away COVID-19 patients, persuaded him to go to the closest VA hospital.

“There was so much fear and confusion and disbelief,” she said of that period.

The separation from her husband in his last days haunts her.

On the afternoon that Jackson took him to the hospital, she parked in the lot, barred from entering the emergency department.

After his death, three weeks later, Jackson was required to wear full protective equipment before she entered the room.

“They wouldn’t let me touch him,” she said. “I didn’t know if he was warm, if he was cold. I just had a barrier stuck between us.”

From her husband’s side, she called her children on FaceTime so that they could see their father before his body was taken away.

A RISING RESENTMENT

When Kaitlyn Urenda thinks back to summer 2020, she remembers the phone call that cleaved her life into two.

Her mother, Genevieve Martinez, a nurse who worked in an elementary school in El Paso, Texas, was calling to tell her that she had COVID-19 symptoms. The virus quickly spread through the entire family.

“My brother, his wife, their kids, my mom, my grandma, my aunt and my cousin and her kids,” Urenda said. “It was like their little village was on fire.”

In many communities across America that summer, the tight vigilance meant to slow the spread of the virus was falling away.

Frustration mounted over the restrictions placed on daily life. People were out in public, socialising, defiant and fed up with staying at home, said Urenda, who lives in Dallas.

“I think people started living day-to-day,” she said. “It was very much like, ‘Well, we better do this now, because in a week you might not be able to go to a restaurant.’”

Martinez, who was 62, died in a hospital that month. Urenda was overcome with grief, but also anger. She was outraged by the medical treatment her mother, grandmother and aunt received. And she was furious that Texas officials loosened restrictions early in the pandemic, a move that she believes left people like her mother at risk.

“We paid the price for it,” Urenda said.

HOPE EXTINGUISHED

In Kerrville, Texas, the Mehendale family knew that vaccines were around the corner as they approached the holiday season of 2020. They kept their Thanksgiving celebration small: Rachel Mehendale and her husband drove from nearby Austin to her parents’ home, and even around the house, they wore masks, not wanting to take any chances.

The Brothers family in Centreville, Virginia, got together in December to bake Christmas cookies, an annual tradition. In Tucson, Arizona, Matt Emory and his fiancé, Luis Celaya, skipped the usual Thanksgiving gathering with extended family, but in December gathered on a back porch to visit with a few relatives.

There was reason to be optimistic: The advent of COVID-19 vaccines at the end of 2020 signalled hope.

But the virus didn’t stop, and family members of those who died in this period were left with a bitter lament: If they had only had the opportunity to get vaccinated, they might still be alive.

The virus claimed Dr Anand Mehendale in Kerrville a few weeks after he began feeling ill on Thanksgiving weekend, a COVID-19 infection he likely contracted at work.

“I remember my dad telling us, I’m so excited the vaccines are coming out and we’ll all get vaccinated and we can just go back to meeting up with each other,” said his daughter, Rachel, who is also a doctor.

Emory vividly remembers his last visit in a Tucson hospital with Celaya, his fiancé. He told him what he would have said during their wedding vows: that Celaya changed his life. That he was perfect. And that Emory loved him.

Celaya, 33, died of COVID-19 on Jan. 4, 2021. “It was just a couple of weeks after Luis passed that the vaccines became available,” Emory said. “He wasn’t able to get one.”

The patriarch of the Brothers family in Centreville, Robert Brothers, a Marine veteran who was 78, died Jan 16, 2021, weeks after contracting the virus in December. His daughter, Nicole Yoder, believes he was infected at the family’s cookie-baking gathering.

“People say stupid stuff to you, like, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten together for cookies,’” she said. “You feel a little shame. But if we didn’t go make cookies, we wouldn’t have had those memories that last time.”

DISSONANCE IN A COUNTRY MOVING ON

Nichole Waltrich is still struggling with the clash in realities that confronted her during summer 2021.

She was living in Pilsen, one of Chicago’s most lively neighbourhoods. When her 23-year-old sister, Emily, died from COVID-19 that June, the energy around her suddenly felt cruel.

“People were outside my door partying and not wearing masks,” she said. “I’m still trying to deal with that dissonance.”

For many Americans, this past summer began in a burst of joy, a lull in the pandemic that suggested it was waning at last.

But the families whose loved ones were dying of COVID-19 were in anguish amid the country’s celebratory mood. What started as an exuberant summer ended in the delta variant ravaging the South, causing more than 2,000 deaths each day.

“It seemed like things were getting a lot better,” said Sharon Noland, a palliative care nurse practitioner in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. “And then out of the blue, here comes this delta variant.”

Noland is still feeling the pain of that shift.

Her 85-year-old mother, Connie Stockard, was convinced that the threat had passed, since no one she knew had gotten the virus. She did not receive a COVID-19 vaccine, despite her daughter’s pleas. Besides, she told Noland, she barely left her house except for weekly church services.

But the virus broke out at church.

Stockard died in a hospital in August. Months later, Noland said she still felt numb, trying to absorb the shock of what happened. “You’re walking, you’re talking one day,” she said, “and then, boom, that person is gone.”

GRIEVING ALONE

Since losing his mother, Bobby C. Noland, to COVID-19 this year, Tom Noland has found himself with a painful question familiar to so many Americans whose loved ones are among the nearly 1 million dead. If not for the pandemic, how much time would they have had left?

“You always think at some point your parents will pass,” said Noland, whose mother-in-law was Stockard. “But I definitely think if COVID wouldn’t have come along, she would have had at least six, seven more years.”

Other questions have intruded into the lives of people whose relatives died of the disease, questions that are a reminder that dying of COVID-19 is seen as different, somehow separate from other losses.

“When somebody says, I lost my husband to cancer, or I lost my son in a car accident, it’s immediate sympathy,” said Sam Beeson, whose wife, Jennifer, died of COVID-19 at the age of 60. “But when you say I lost my wife to COVID, the first thing people say is, ‘Did she have preexisting conditions?’”

Beeson is still tortured by people around him who downplay COVID-19, or say it wasn’t real, or share misinformation on Facebook. Even people who knew Jennifer, he said, share memes mocking vaccines.

“Stuff like, ‘I’m not getting vaccinated because I have an immune system.’ Jennifer had an immune system, and a million people in this country had an immune system, too,” he said. “I end up having to defend the disease that killed my wife.”

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