Nettie Oliverio didn’t get to see her husband Tony in his final moments.
They were married for 43 years. Throughout their entire marriage, Nettie couldn’t remember a time they were separated more than a few days. But in June, she had to make the difficult decision to place Tony in a memory care facility because his dementia was worsening.
After two and a half weeks at the facility, Tony contracted COVID-19. He died four days later.
And the entire time he was there, Nettie couldn’t visit him.
“When he passed away, I couldn’t even see his body because he was COVID positive. So he was cremated without me seeing him at all,” she said. “I know that he’s gone…I have his ashes here, but because I never saw him in the hospital…and never saw him start to go downhill…my psyche doesn’t recognize that yet.”
Experiences like this have become more common recently. Because most hospitals and skilled facilities don’t allow visitors in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19, many families have gone weeks without seeing their loved ones.
Like Nettie, Vicki Railton was separated from a loved one because of the pandemic. Before the initial shutdowns, Railton visited her mother at an assisted living facility at least four times a week and spoke to her on the phone every day.
A lot has changed since then. Her mother’s dementia worsened around March, so her memory didn’t allow for her to be as receptive to remote forms of communication. Railton said she wasn’t responding well to things like Skype or FaceTime, and phone calls were becoming a challenge.
Her mom wouldn’t remember the calls she made, so she would call Railton all the time–sometimes every half hour. For most phone calls, she was in a state of confusion, and Railton had to calm her down. This continued for a while until her daughter made the decision to disconnect her phone.
She tried to find other ways to connect with her. For a while, Railton wrote letters for her mom every day and sent them to her. But she wasn’t very receptive to that either–later on, Railton found that she had only opened around half of the letters.
After nearly 12 years of supporting her mother with her condition, Railton said she has learned to slowly let go of her mom, but the separation due to the pandemic made that process even more difficult.
“It’s been a different grief,” Railton said. “I’ve learned how to co-exist with grief anyway, and live with it at arm’s length…If I let it engulf me, I wouldn’t be able to function.”
Last week, Railton finally saw her mom again. Even though it was through a window, Railton said she was glad to see her after five months, but it was an emotional experience.
“I had to curb my enthusiasm…because as far as she’s concerned [due to her dementia], no time has passed,” she said. “So she thinks that we talked yesterday, or this morning. So I can’t say, ‘Oh, my God, mom, it’s so good to see you. I have missed you so much,’ because that would be confusing to her. So I just say ‘I love you,’ and we put our hands up on the glass.”
Grief was hard, now it’s harder
Rachel Ibaibarriaga, a licensed psychologist specializing in grief and loss, explained that the pandemic makes the grieving process more complicated.
“What makes grief so hard is that it feels helpless and powerless, and it can be very isolating,” she said. “I feel a normal loss before all of this was still very isolating…[and] felt very powerless, and now you add all things COVID, all things pandemic, and I think what was already very hard…is just amplified.”
Before the quarantine, there were many ways to deal with grief. People were free and safe to meet with friends or loved ones, say final goodbyes, have funerals and engage in many other activities to better manage their stress.
But now, Ibaibarriaga said, those kinds of social coping strategies have been taken away. On top of that, so many are grieving for a multitude of different reasons.
“We are all grieving. We’re grieving the lives that we were living…the year we were planning for. We’re grieving missed milestones, big ones, small ones…We’re grieving our relationships and connections to people,” she said. “We want to be connected to each other now more than ever, because I feel like everything is so hard. ”
She had one major piece of advice for those struggling during the pandemic: be gentle with yourself.
“I think we have this pressure that we should all be doing better. We should have it all figured out…We should think that this is normal now,” she said. “The reality is there’s nothing normal about what’s going on…There is no right way to do this. We literally are all doing the best we can.”
She also suggested finding aspects of your life you can control, whether that’s texting a friend or taking a walk. Overall, she emphasized the importance of connecting with others and reaching out.
“We tend to get in these bubbles where we feel like we’re the only one that’s struggling,” she added. “Just try to tell yourself there is nothing weak about asking for help. It’s the bravest thing that you can do, especially right now.”