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by Sheena Barnett

It’s been a year since he passed from COVID-19. I always knew that grieving my dad would be complicated, due to our close-but-not-close relationship, but COVID complicated things further. It has complicated everything for everyone, of course. But if you’ve lost someone to COVID, you know that COVID grief is different from other grief. I am not saying it’s worse; this isn’t the Grief Olympics, and none of us want a Gold Medal in Who’s Hurting the Most. It’s just weird and different.

My dad and I had a relationship that no one understood but us, and even then, I don’t think I understood it that well.

We weren’t especially close, like in the way that I’m close with my mom. We had almost nothing in common at all. He would rather spend his weekends at a football game, while I’d rather be at a concert or reading. He was conservative; I’m liberal. I can’t tell you the number of times he walked away from me, shaking his head, because he didn’t “get” me and whatever I was into at the moment. We bonded over food and travel, but that was about it. We knew what topics were open for discussion and what wasn’t, and we stuck to that. I regret now that we never dug any deeper than shallow conversations about baseball or my cat.

It’s been a year since he passed from COVID-19. I always knew that grieving my dad would be complicated, due to our close-but-not- close relationship, but COVID complicated things further. It has complicated everything for everyone, of course. But if you’ve lost someone to COVID, you know that COVID grief is different from other grief. I am not saying it’s worse; this isn’t the Grief Olympics, and none of us want a Gold Medal in Who’s Hurting the Most. It’s just weird and different.

I am fascinated by death and the sociology of death and dying. I love to study how dying and funeral practices have changed over the years. I think a lot of us expect -or even hope – for a calm, quiet death, surrounded by our family or friends as we transition into the next life.

But my dad didn’t get that – not quite. My family and I FaceTimed him – he, in his hospital room, and we, standing outside the hospitala few days before he passed. The last day he was conscious.

We knew he wouldn’t make it – and I think he knew it, too- but I couldn’t bring myself to say, “Goodbye.” I couldn’t bring myself to say, “Thank you for being my father.” I was paralyzed in denial, sadness and fear, and I couldn’t express my many emotions. I just waved at him, gave him a thumbs up (he loved to give thumbs up), and told him I loved him. I felt ridiculous for only managing those little actions when I felt so emotionally overwhelmed.

I am appreciative that the hospital let us FaceTime him, but that just isn’t the same as being there with him. All I have wanted to do since his passing is to give him a high five, then hold his hand – like we always did when we parted ways. I feel robbed of that
opportunity – and COVID is the thief. I can’t help but wonder if my father felt robbed of final connection, too.

COVID made his funeral difficult. The funeral home suggested we stay away from his body, just to be safe. I am not typically someone who enjoys looking at my loved one’s dead body, so I was OK with this – but it felt strange to see him and think to myself, I can’t be near him.

Only a handful of people were allowed to be in the funeral home at any given time, so his funeral was small and not as well attended as it would’ve been. My boyfriend couldn’t be there to comfort me. None of my friends could attend. While my family members comforted me, I felt so alone. My daddy was gone, and I was by myself. I think I would have felt that way had he died of anything else, but, again – COVID is the thief.

In the weeks and months following his passing, I thought about him constantly. I missed the daily phone calls and weekend visits. But reminders of his death were literally everywhere – COVID was all over the news, everyone wore a mask, social distancing reminders were posted everywhere or pumped in through the grocery store’s speakers. No matter what you did, COVID was there to complicate it. Should I wear a mask when I walk to the mailbox? Is it safe to meet with a friend outdoors? I took every precaution and then some. I didn’t want to be the reason that some other family grieved.

My sadness quickly turned to anger. As COVID deniers got louder, I got angrier. I felt constantly full of rage as I saw people refuse to wear a mask, traveled, and ate out in restaurants. I’ve never been an angry person, but I was livid. Constantly. Did these people really want to put others’ lives in danger, all for the sake of a burger, a manicure, or a trip to the beach? I was never someone to post rants on social media, but I became that person overnight. It did little good, but at least I released some pent-up anger. I joined a Facebook group for people who lost someone to COVID, and I learned that all of us in that group are intensely angry. We’re angry that COVID happened, and we’re especially angry that we, as a society, let it get as bad as it was. It was all so preventable. All of these deaths could’ve been prevented.

Those same feelings I felt when my dad was sick with COVID came back several more times to haunt me, as I watched other friends and family members battle the virus. It was absolutely terrifying to hear them struggle to breathe. Some of them are long-haulers with serious complications. They’re angry at the virus – and I’m angry on their behalf.

I’m going to be angry for as long as this virus is around, and beyond that. I will always be angry that this virus took away my father, and that it has robbed my friends of their quality of life. I will always be angry that some people would rather live their lives “like normal,” at the risk of everyone else’s well-being. It feels like a slap in the face to me, as someone who lost someone to COVID, when I see people disregarding mask mandates, social distancing or even the most basic safety protocols. It feels like a personal attack, and it is personal. Someone else’s negligence led to my dad’s death.

I expected to feel relief after getting the vaccine, but I kept forgetting I was even vaccinated. I guess all of the trauma from the past year overrode that feeling entirely. I am relieved that my mom is vaccinated, but it barely registers with me that I am vaccinated, too. I still live as carefully as I did when the pandemic began. I am still terrified of this virus. I’ve seen what it can do and I don’t want it – even a mild case can leave you with permanent effects. No, thanks.

And no, CDC, I’m not going to stop wearing my mask just because I am vaccinated. Maybe it’s a trauma thing, maybe I’m just used to them by now, but I think I’ll want to wear masks in public for a long time to come.

I’m also anxious that an anti-masker will confront me about my mask. In my anger, I’ve come to see the COVID deniers and anti-maskers as monsters. They frighten me with their willful ignorance and complete disregard for others.

I try my best to balance out the anger and fear with gratitude. I am thankful for the vaccines, which arrived so quickly and are so efficient. I am thankful, each and every day, for my health, for my family and friends, and for their health. I am thankful that I had 38 years with my dad, and I’m thankful for the memories we made. I’m thankful for the people who are still being careful.

I don’t think I’ll ever fully comprehend my dad’s death and the COVID complications that surrounded it. It’s just one more thing that makes my relationship with my dad a bit more complicated.

But one thing that feels crystal clear and uncomplicated: I want my dad’s memory to be recognized and honored. I want that for all of the 600,000 people who have died due to the virus. It feels like society is trying so hard to ignore the fact that we’ve lost 600,000 of our family, friends and neighbors – but it is deeply disrespectful to do that. Each of those numbers is a person, a human being. Each of them left behind grieving family and friends.

If you have lost someone due to COVID, please know that I see you, and I see and understand your grief.

You matter.

Your loved one matters. And your grief – and all the complicated feelings that go with it – matters.

Take care.