‘We’re Not Alone’: Families Share How They’re Coping With Grief in COVID’s Long Wake
THE CITY reached out to people who participated in our MISSING THEM obituaries project, asking about how they’re dealing with loss. Dozens responded and offered coping strategies, words of encouragement and advice for the holiday season and beyond.
This story is part of “MISSING THEM,” THE CITY’s ongoing collaborative project to remember every New Yorker killed by COVID-19. If you know someone who died or may have died due to the coronavirus, share their story here, leave us a voicemail at 646-494-1095 or text “remember” to 73224.
Digna Lebron and her son Adalberto “Tito” Lebron were admitted to the hospital four days apart in March 2020 with COVID-19. After she woke up from a three-week long coma, she found out that he had died.
Digna was devastated. She shared a special bond with her 53-year-old son and had retired early to take care of him after he was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2014.
The hardest part, Lebron said, was not being able to say goodbye.
“Grieving will always be there with you — it becomes part of your life, part of you and part of what would’ve been,” she said. “But we have to cope.”
Lebron is among more than 1,000 New Yorkers who have participated in THE CITY’s MISSING THEM project, a collaboration with the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia Journalism School, the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and other partners to tell the stories of people lost to the coronavirus. These stories have helped build the city’s most comprehensive COVID-19 memorial, with more than 2,500 names and hundreds of obituaries.
More than 34,700 New Yorkers have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic — a figure that recently surpassed five million worldwide.
An Extended Family of Remembrance
While vaccines have spurred the city’s evolving reopening, hundreds of thousands of people in New York are still reeling from losing close family to COVID-19 — a loss they feel every day and a loss that can become more acute during the holiday season. Many others are grappling with the deaths of friends, coworkers and neighbors.
A study published last year by the National Academy of Sciences’ journal found that each person who died of COVID-19 left behind about nine close family members who are grieving.
Search the Names of New Yorkers Lost to COVID-19
Read the stories of some who died from the coronavirus — and help THE CITY tell the stories of thousands more.
The grieving process during the pandemic has been particularly tough with social distancing measures forcing people to isolate, said Migdalia Torres of Red Door Community, a cancer support organization that also ran bereavement groups for those affected by COVID-19. Torres emphasized the importance of staying connected with others.
“When you’re experiencing a certain degree of sadness that one feels when someone dear and close has transitioned [died], you want to isolate yourself in some way,” she said. “Staying connected with others, whether it be family, friends, professional support, individual counseling, all of that can really help you. It helps you share that grief and not feel so alone in order to progress and move forward through your pain.”
THE CITY reached back out to more than 1,000 people who submitted stories to MISSING THEM, asking them to share how they’re dealing with grief. Around 40 responded and shared coping strategies, words of encouragement and advice.
The Importance of Community
Many people stressed the importance of finding a supportive community.
Friends and family are a good place to start. “Surround yourself with people who will validate you and give you the space you need to heal,” said Shyvonne Noboa, who lost her grandfather, 82-year-old Queens resident Tobias Noboa, an immigrant from Ecuador who drove a yellow taxi cab for more than 45 years.
Elisha Bouret started connecting with people online after losing her grandmother-in-law Joan Terrero to COVID-19 in May 2020 at age 86. Terrero, who was born in Harlem and raised in The Bronx, loved soul food, Western movies and Butterfinger candy bars.
Bouret met artist Miranda Sheh at an event organized by THE CITY in December. Sheh later painted a portrait in memory of Terrero free of charge, incorporating elements of her personality into the background, such as her love for books and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Shortly after, Bouret began attending a series of informal “grief circles” Sheh runs on Zoom for those who have lost loved ones. Bouret now helps host an edition for members of the Latinx community.
‘There is some good in grief when you process it properly.’
The grief circles are intimate and offer a space to talk openly about loss. “There is some good in grief when you process it properly,” Bouret said. “A lot of people feel like they have to do it by themselves and that’s not true.”
Sheh offers regular grief circles with special editions for the members of the Latinx, Filipino and Nigerian communities as well as groups with Cantonese, Mandarin and Khmer speakers. Tickets are offered on a sliding scale that includes a no-charge option.
“Somehow through talking about it we feel better because we realize we’re not alone, and someone else feels the same way that we do,” Sheh said.
Some people grieving the loss of loved ones to COVID-19 also emphasized the value of faith, prayer and spiritual practices.
Bouret has an offering table in her entryway where she keeps photographs of her grandmother-in-law and some of Terrero’s favorite things, including Butterfinger and Kit Kat bars, and her favorite cake, vanilla with chocolate frosting from Entenmann’s.
Nancy Goldbach, who lost her father, 89-year-old Brooklyn resident Raymond F. Goldbach, in March 2021, said her Catholicism has helped her cope with grief. “Faith is another large part of the healing process. If you believe that your loved one is truly in a better place and keeping a watchful eye over you every day it makes it easier,” she said.
The Importance of Remembering
Many people said they found it helpful to keep their loved ones’ memories alive by talking about them, posting about them on social media or donating to charities in their name.
“Share your memories,” said Charlene Thomas, who lost her mother, 76-year-old Ruth Mazyck Corbett of Brooklyn. Corbett worked as an executive secretary for decades before becoming a counselor at a Head Start Program in her 60s and founding a Christian counseling ministry at Clinton Hill’s Emmanuel Baptist Church. After she died in April 2020, more than 1,000 people tried to tune in to her online funeral service, crashing the livestream.
“If they are good ones, they will make you smile and be grateful for the time you had,” Thomas said. “If they are not so good, sharing them is a good place for healing to start.”
The Importance of Writing It Down
Lebron has turned to writing to cope with losing her son. Since his death, she’s written more than 30 poems and a book titled, “Where Is My Boy?”
“I bury my pain in things that remind me of Tito, in poems about him, in my book,” she said.
She and many others have found it helpful to keep a journal.
“Journaling is a good outlet, even if it’s not your thing,” Hillary Porter, who lost her husband Lloyd Cornelious Porter, said. “It’s cathartic to allow yourself to express yourself without worrying about spelling or grammar, or who is going to read it. You can burn the pages. It’s a helpful release.”
Lloyd was an actor who owned the Bread Stuy coffee shop and Bread Love eatery in Brooklyn. He died in May 2020 at the age of 49.
Elizabeth Jaeger, who lost her father, Gary Jaeger, started blogging about her COVID-19 experience. She launched “Conversations On The Empty Bench,” a collection of letters submitted by members of the public, addressed to loved ones who have died.
The empty bench “came to represent all the conversations I would never again have with my father,” she wrote in an email to THE CITY.
Gary Jaeger lived most of his life in Glendale, Queens, and died in April 2020 at the age of 71. After retiring from his job as a programmer with New York Life Insurance, he spent time with his grandson and travelled the world on cruise ships alongside his wife.
The Importance of Staying Busy
Sally Ollarvide, who lost her husband, Juan Ollarvide, 60, in April 2020, sent a list of 14 different ways she keeps herself busy, including exercising, riding the Staten Island Ferry and exploring Brooklyn.
“It helps to not be sitting at home thinking about how Juan isn’t here,” she said.
Ollarvide describes her late husband as “the consummate social animal.” The two met in the Cancún airport when Sally was on vacation. She packed up her home in Florida and moved to Mexico to be with him a week later. They eventually moved to New York City together.
J.D. Arden, who lost his 80-year-old father, Yasho Dearden of Brooklyn, in April 2020, said he remembers his dad by watching movies they watched together during Arden’s childhood, including the “Indiana Jones” and “Pink Panther” series.
He also watches his father’s favorite movies, such as “Exodus” and Gandhi, and writes down the lyrics from Dearden’s favorite songs, including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” by Bob Dylan. Arden read the lyrics to that song at his father’s funeral.
Dearden also loved shoes, jazz bars and corny jokes.
“It’s a way to bring back nice and reassuring memories of my dad that I otherwise wouldn’t have thought of. It helped me look back on my dad’s life and remember happy times,” Arden said.
The Importance of Not Being OK
Most important, some family members said, is accepting that it’s OK not to be OK.
“My only advice to others is: Take it one day at a time, one hour at a time and even one minute at a time if necessary,” said Barbara Rivera, who lost her husband, 50-year-old Luis Rivera who was known as the “mayor” at Jamaica Hospital in Queens, where he worked as a registrar.
“Let your grief take you where it may, but keep your loved ones close to your heart,” she added. “It’s okay to feel sorrow at any time or day. Tears need to flow to help heal.”
RESOURCES FROM THE MISSING THEM COMMUNITY
We heard from dozens of New Yorkers who shared what’s helping them cope with losing a loved one to COVID-19 during the pandmeic. Below is a list of support groups, books and poems recommended by the MISSING THEM community.
Support groups and hotlines:
- COVID Survivors for Change, a grassroots national network, runs CovidConnections, a free, weekly support group for COVID-19 survivors and those who lost loved ones to the virus. The support group is also available in Spanish.
- The Dougy Center: An organization that provides free support, resources and connection to those grieving, along with resources that are specifically related to loss due to COVID-19.
- WorkWell NYC: New York City’s free wellness program for city employees. The program offers various workshops, virtual classes, webinars and infographics.
- New York Project Hope’s free, confidential COVID-19 emotional support hotline which connects callers with trained crisis counselors: 1-844-863-9314
- “It’s Okay Not to Be Okay” by Sheila Walsh
- “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis
- “The End Is Just the Beginning” by Rev. Arlene Churn
- “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron
- “Option B” by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
- “Resilient Grieving” by Lucy Hone
- “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye
- “She is Gone (He is Gone)” by David Harkins
- “God’s Garden” by Anonymous
- Psalm 91
MISSING THEM is supported, in part, by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia Journalism School.