On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
As the death toll for the coronavirus surpasses one million, we’re looking back at the local lives lost.
They were cooks, musicians, ministers, managers, nurses and teachers. They were spouses, parents and grandparents. And they were ours — the more than 7,000 dead in the Washington region. So how do we mourn loved ones in a time when rituals are disrupted and large gatherings forbidden? And how does the very nature of grief transform when it’s on such a massive scale?
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
Voice Memos From Our Listeners
From the first wave in February in China through New York City's April catastrophe and on to India's current surge, the coronavirus has unleashed a worldwide suffering with no evident exit.
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. They were cooks, musicians, ministers, managers, nurses and teachers. They were spouses, parents and grandparents. They were ours, the more than 7,000 lost to the coronavirus in the Washington region. As the death toll from the pandemic surpasses one million, we are remembering the people we've lost here at home. In talking about how we grieve at a time when rituals are disrupted and the magnitude of loss is almost incomprehensible, we'd like to have you join the conversation. Have you lost a loved one to COVID-19? Give us a call: 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Joining us now is Marc Fisher. Marc Fisher is a Senior Editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The Washington Post. He's the Author of several non-fiction books, including "Trump Revealed." Marc, thank you for joining us.
MARC FISHERGood to be with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIMarc, you've reported that the COVID-19 toll is nearing one million worldwide, and has now surpassed that terrible marker. Can you give us a sense of the scale of this tragedy?
FISHERIt's really hard, and we've struggled to find ways to do that. We've been telling the individual stories of people who lost their lives to COVID-19. We've been trying to get across the enormity of the numbers in one country after another. But when you try to compare this to other pandemics, the numbers are not as large in the United States as the Spanish Flu back a century ago. The numbers are much larger than they are in the losses we've had in wars in most people's lifetimes. And yet none of this seems to quite get across the nature of this loss, because it's not just the numbers of people. It's the fact that the way in which people died and the way in which we were able to remember and recognize those who died has been so utterly changed by the circumstances of the lockdown and just the difficulty of coming together as families and as friends. And that has changed the character of this loss.
NNAMDIDeath is hard on families at any time. But during a pandemic, there are even greater indignities. What have grieving families had to endure these past seven months?
FISHERI've spoken to one family after another and whether it's days after they lost a loved one or weeks or months later, they are still shaken by the fact that they were not able to go through all of the rituals and rites that all societies, all cultures have created to ease our grief and ease our pain when someone dies. So, it's the funerals that we're not able to be had or the funerals that were forced to be on Zoom. It's the wakes and eulogies and family gatherings that did not happen because people were not able to travel, were not able to be in the same room with one another. And the loss of those ceremonies, of those rites is really keenly felt. I've spoken to one family after another where they want to tell me their story, so that we can write about it in the Post, because that's the only way they see to be able to get that story out to the community of people who may have known a little bit about the person who has died.
FISHERAll the normal ways we have for doing that have been virtually silenced by our isolation over these last months.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you have memories of someone you lost that you would like to share? Give us a call: 800-433-8850. Marc, you mentioned that you talked to someone who wanted to talk to the Post, because there didn't seem too much of an alternative for them. You wrote that you are not having to pry information from the people you talk to here. They want to talk about those they've lost. What do they want us to know?
FISHERWell, as a reporter, you're often in the position of having to try to persuade someone to give you information, whether it's a politician, a businessperson, or whatever. In these cases, there are families that want us to know how this person lived, what was meaningful about their lives, what made them feel connected to their family to their friends. I wrote about a woman in New York, a 91-year-old paraprofessional at a New York City elementary school named Rosario Gonzalez. And she, aside from just the extraordinary fact that she was working full-time in a school at age 91, she was someone who an entire community kind of organized itself around. She was the one who the kids went to because they knew she would give them a hug and a stick of Juicy Fruit gum. She was the one colleagues went to when they needed some inspiration to keep going in a tough job. And I was able to talk to her grandchildren, her children, and get some sense of these stories that they wanted everyone to know about because they weren't able to get together in person and communicate it to each other.
FISHERI was talking to her son, who was in the process of driving her RV from Sacramento, California to New York City, four months after his mother died would be the first opportunity he was going to have to get together with his family to visit his mother's grave. And he broke down as he told me the story about how she was able to connect with her community and stay in the New York City housing project where she had lived for decades just so that she could be around the kids she was teaching at her school. Those are the kinds of things that people would tell each other normally at a funeral, and not having had that chance was just wrenching for this family.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number if you have a story to share. A listener tweeted to us: "We actually lost our uncle, who contracted COVID-19 while he was in the hospital suffering from another illness. We know his time was limited due to the other illness, but contracting COVID-19 in the hospital is hard to fathom." You, too, can share your stories. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow. Marc, you wrote that Americans are increasingly tuning out when it comes to the news about the pandemic. Do you think people are just tired?
FISHERYeah. There's certainly an exhaustion element of this. We've seen that the engagement that people have in stories about the pandemic has gone way down. The number of Google searches for those kinds of terms have gone down, and I think there's been a general public frustration with both the lockdown and the political division that has resulted in our country and others around the world. So, there is a sense of, "We just want this to be over." And I think a lot of people kind of express that frustration by tuning out. And that maybe helpful to individuals psychologically, but it has a tough impact on those who've lost someone because they feel even more alone when they see their community. They go out and see people walking around without masks or gathering for parties and those kinds of things. And that strikes them as kind of a punch back at those who've lost someone, almost as if they're experience didn't matter, and I heard that from many relatives of those who've died. They want their experience to be able to communicate to people that they need to take this disease more seriously. And when they see the opposite happening, it can be quite dispiriting.
NNAMDIIt feels as if people are thumbing their noses at them, so to speak. But what do we know, Marc, about the million people worldwide who have died? Where are they, and who are they?
FISHERThey're really all over the world. They're in virtually every country. And this disease, this virus is an equal opportunity offender. That said, there are certainly clusters and surges that we've known and seen. Certainly, in our country, New York City in March. And then over the summer some of the more rural areas of the country. We've seen the disease spread among people of all economic strata, but particularly among low-income people. Particularly people who can't afford to live apart from others and who have to go out and work in jobs where they are exposed to more people and who can't afford to work from home or don't have the kind of jobs that are given to working at home. So, there is a disproportionate impact in our country on Black and Hispanic Americans. In other countries, on low-income people of various kinds. And I think that's been quite consistent across the world. But then there is a political aspect to this, as well. Our country leads the world in death and in cases, and even when you correct for per capita.
FISHERSo, there are places such as Brazil and the United States, where there was a more lackadaisical attitude toward the illness from political leadership, and that has resulted in bigger and more devastating surges of cases in those countries.
NNAMDIIndeed. There was a political presidential debate last night between President Donald Trump and the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, in which that issue came up quite a lot, but the president making the claim that he and his administration have done more than was even expected to stem the pandemic. What in fact, are the facts, Marc?
FISHERWell, the facts are that there are some countries that moved to a lockdown much earlier, much more deliberately than others. And those countries have had a generally easier time of it. There have been outbreaks even in countries that have had severe lockdowns, but they've tended to be shorter, less deadly and less widespread. Here in the United States, we have seen that in those places that opened up quickly and were encouraged to by the president and his administration, we've seen much greater surges and sort of second rebounds of number of cases. Overall, it is true that the virus has become less deadly over time, as medical experts have figured out some ways to save people and they've figured out what works and what doesn't work with certain kinds of severe cases. But as far as the actual caseload, that is very much tied to compliance with some of these basic hand washing, social distancing, mask-wearing measures that do seem to work at least to a larger extent.
NNAMDIBut there is also a movement in this country of people who believe that being forced to wear masks and take other precautions are infringing on their freedoms. How significant, how large is that movement?
FISHERWell, it's hard to put a number on it. But it is a classic American divide. Much of our history can be written through the prism of the rights of the individual freedoms versus the needs of the collective society. And that's a struggle we have on so many fronts in this country, and it’s kind of part of our basic DNA. So, you would expect there to be that kind of a conflict and debate. But what's happened is that it has become a partisan political issue, as a result of the president's decision that he would appeal more to his base by pushing away from the idea of mask-wearing, especially in the early months. And so, what might have been a more theoretical debate about how much force a government should use to get people to comply with these measures has instead become a kind of identity marker about people's individual politics. And that is unfortunate, because it has led to these outbreaks, especially in some areas where the president's base is strongest.
NNAMDIIn about the minute we have left, Marc, you've written it is a pandemic that has divided countries from within, yet unites the world in common anguish and loss. Has there ever been anything comparable to this in the decades you've been a journalist?
FISHERWell, not really. I think a lot of people might compare it to the sense that a country has in a time of war, and yet that tends to be much more of a rallying around. And so, in wartime, you do have people coming together in common grief to work together toward a common goal.
NNAMDIOnly got about 20 seconds left.
FISHERAnd we're not seeing that here because of that politicization we were talking about earlier. So, it's different from a war experience. And it's different from previous pandemics, also because of that politicization.
NNAMDIMarc Fisher, thank you so much for joining us.
FISHERGood to be with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, we will talk to people who have been personally affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and take your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you lost a loved one to COVID-19? Give us a call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us now is Michele Berryhill. Michele Berryhill is a Maryland Resident. She lost her husband, George, to COVID-19. Today, we're talking to people who have been personally affected by COVID-19. Michele Berryhill, thank you for joining us.
MICHELE BERRYHILLI'm glad to be with you.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation if you give us a call at 800-433-8850. What has the grief process been life for you during the pandemic? What advice would you give to others who are mourning? 800-433-8850. Michele, you lost your husband George to COVID-19 back in April. What can you tell me about George?
BERRYHILLGeorge was a very humble, very loving, kind. He had a keen sense of humor. He was a hard worker when he worked. He retired in 2005. And then he had to go in dialysis three years in 2017. And then he was diagnosed on the 17th of April, and he passed on the 22nd of April of the COVID.
NNAMDIThat was very short period of time.
BERRYHILLOh, yes, it was. It was unbelievable.
NNAMDIWhat was special about George? What would be -- what would you want people to know about him?
BERRYHILLI want them to know that he was a kind, giving, lovable. And he loved his grandkids and joining, you know, on trips with them. And all our kids -- he had a phone ministry in his life, and he would call everybody. Everybody, coworkers, church, family and our immediate family, his sister. He had one sister, Eda. And he would call all of us, you know, everybody. And every holiday -- even when it wasn't a holiday, he in the phone ministry. He would just call and say, "I'm thinking about you." And, you know, and everybody is calling me now and say they really miss that. They miss that.
NNAMDIHow and when did you and George first meet?
BERRYHILLWe met on our job. We met on the job. We worked together for 25 years. And we've been together ever since. We were together 35 years. And as my daughter say, "Mama, you're all like a choo-choo train." Because we were always together. Even now people that don't really know about his death because we knew so many people, they would say, "Where's George?" And I said -- they cry, you know, they holler and scream and everything because we were always together. We did everything, as one.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Do you have memories of someone you lost that you would like to share? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Has someone close to you died of the coronavirus? If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. But you could still call us at 800-433-8850. Michele, when did you realize George had gotten sick with the coronavirus?
BERRYHILLIt was one week before his death.
NNAMDIWow. How come?
BERRYHILLHe had -- well, he was winded. But he was very winded. He was shaking real bad, and he was vomiting. He had diarrhea, and all of the signs of a COVID. And he stopped eating for a week before his death.
NNAMDIWhoa. Were you able to hold a service for George?
BERRYHILLNo. I didn't. No. I couldn't have anything. I have to have something at a later date. I don't this is a good time.
NNAMDIYeah. What has it been like for you since his death?
BERRYHILLI really miss him. It's been -- it's been rough, you know. My son and I are together. He's George III, and he's looking out for mommy. He's taking good care of me. And he's there for me. But I really miss him.
NNAMDII do understand that. What do you see as George's legacy?
BERRYHILLHis legacy is he wanted all of us to get along and love each other and just live in the moment, you know. And be happy. Just be happy with each other and have respect and love for one another. That's what I see as his legacy, because he always wanted everybody to get along and be as one, you know, be together, and happy times, and say it.
NNAMDIMichele, it's my understanding that you and I might have met. Is that correct?
BERRYHILLWe met -- probably, yeah. I don't know.
NNAMDIIt was probably a long time ago. But we are very thankful that you have shared your story with us. And we understand how difficult it has been for you since George's passing that he has not been able to be commemorated in the way that you would like. But hang on with us for a while, because joining us now is Deborah Ruiz. She's a D.C. Resident. She lost her mother, Nelita, to the coronavirus. Deborah Ruiz, thank you for joining us.
DEBORAH RUIZHi. Thank you, Kojo. And thank you for allowing me to share this, also, with your listeners.
NNAMDIDeborah, you were one of many listeners who answered our call out for memories of loved ones lost to COVID-19. Your remembrance was of your mother Nelita Ruiz. Tell us about her. What was she like?
RUIZShe was full of happy. She always smiled. People that came by her and met her always said what a joy she was. She was a light. She was a strong woman. She came from a whole different country to the United States, not knowing the language, and yet she was able to make friends right away and encourage us to be positive, because, you know, also we had to learn to speak the language, and it was very difficult. But she would always keep that -- you know, tells us always to be positive, that we would learn, that we were intelligent enough to -- you know, always offered some very good words of encouragement.
NNAMDIYou wrote that Nelita was fearless, and that she empowered you to do anything you put your mind to. And you came to this country when you were very young. How did she encourage you?
RUIZI faced a lot -- you know, not knowing the language when I was little. A lot of bullying, you know, and I would come home, and she would just, you know, always go and say, "Listen, you have to be patient. You will learn. You're smart enough." You know, she -- both my sister and I, she always made us to be strong women. You know, she made sure that we were neatly clothed, clean and paid attention to everything. Wonderful. My memories of going back is very great.
NNAMDIWhen did you know she had gotten sick with the coronavirus?
RUIZMy mom, unfortunately, was in a nursing home. So, she -- you know, I would go to see her every weekend. My father of 50 years of marriage went to see her every single day. And every weekend I would go and when the last say Saturday I was there it was -- my dad had called and said that she had been taken to the hospital on a Friday, which I believe was the 1st of May. By the next day I had talked to the hospital and I let them know to contact me. I would much rather know the news before my father, because they were so close, and he suffered so much as well. At that point she -- the doctor said that she had all the symptoms and that she was admitted with pneumonia. So, they had tested her for COVID as soon as Monday. They told me that she was not going to survive, that they wanted to put her on hospice. So, we -- my sister tried to get a hold of her. And that morning of the 7th of May, she had passed. It was the day after my wedding anniversary and the day before my father's birthday, May 7th.
NNAMDIHere is Eva in Fairfax, Virginia. Eva, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EVAHi, Kojo. I think I'm the one that has met you before. Yeah.
EVAMy husband and I were season ticket holders at the Naval Academy Football Game.
NNAMDISo, you sat close to Marc Plotkin and me.
EVAYes, we sat right behind you. Right behind you.
NNAMDII think I absolutely remember you. You know, Marc Plotkin passed last year, too.
EVAI did not know that. I'm so sorry to hear that. I did not know. Well, my husband, he was Admiral Dennis Dwyer, was in assisted living. And had been in assisted living for four years, and I visited him every single day. Of course, when COVID started, that was stopped. And he did well. I will say the assisted living did well with, you know, visual type of calls. And he did well for the first two weeks. But in the third week, he really declined significantly.
NNAMDIOh, God, I'm sorry to hear. So sorry to hear.
EVASo, you know, I wasn't able to visit. Fortunately, in that last --
NNAMDIEva, hold your thought for a second, because we're going to take a short break. And when we come back, I'll allow you to finish your story. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about people in this region who died as a result of the coronavirus. And when we took that break, Eva in Fairfax, Virginia, who I met with her husband at football games -- Navy football games, was telling us her story. Eva, please continue.
EVASo, I was -- you know, I hadn't seen -- was unable to visit him for three weeks, though I was grateful that, as he died, that they did allow me to come in and to be with him. The hardest part has been that we have not been able to honor him and to have a funeral, because of the crisis that we are in now.
EVASo, when that occurs then I will have -- because I want my family, I want our friends to be around us, I want him to be -- you know, to be, you know, remembered by his friends, all of us together. And when this is over, I will have something at the Naval Academy chapel, and he will be buried in the Naval Academy cemetery.
NNAMDIOh, good for you, Eva. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Michele Berryhill, are you planning on also having something for George, at some point?
BERRYHILLYes. Yes, I am.
NNAMDIOkay. At some point in the future, when it is safer. And, Deborah, we've been hearing so much about how hard it is to grieve in isolation, which we are forced to by this pandemic. What has it been like for you, since your mom's death?
RUIZA lot of crying. You know, it just gets to you in the moment, and it's hard. You know, my sister has -- did receive the ashes, and she built a lovely alter that we are able to see, in honor of my mom. And I've seen the picture. It just tears me up. You know, I'd love to be -- I would've loved to have been able to be there with her. I think about how afraid she may have been, but hopefully not. Hopefully, you know, she -- I don't know. It's really hard to keep that process in your head of, you know, thinking about them in those moments.
NNAMDIDeborah, if you could impart one message to our listeners, one takeaway from all of this loss, what would it be?
RUIZTell your loved ones and your friends how much you love them, every day.
NNAMDIEvery single day. Deborah Ruiz, Michele Berryhill, thank you both for joining us. We reached out to our listeners to ask them to share their own stories about how they have been affected by deaths of loved one during the coronavirus. Here now are some of those stories.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERMy name is Paula Colley, and I'm calling from Hyattsville, Maryland. And I'm remembering my mom, Dolly, who was 83 years old.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERI'm remembering and honoring my husband of 19 years, Barry Cliff, who died of COVID at age 77.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERSidney (unintelligible) born on May 28th, 1982.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERNoway Alsado.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERMy name is Sonia Okin, and I'm going to tell you about my husband, who was a wonderful, kind, gentle man, and died of COVID pneumonia on April the 30th.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERBarry enjoyed people. He loved to laugh and make others laugh. He had a collection of funny T-shirts. One of his favorites was, “I don't need Google. My wife knows everything.”
REMEMBRANCE CALLERRick was a gentle person, a kind person, and everybody who knew him felt that way about him.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERHe was funny, he was kind. He was incredibly reliable as a friend and as a coworker.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERHe's a caring and loving person and a very dedicated father. I lost my best friend and my life coach.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERMy uncle opened his arms with unconditional love, embracing everyone he met as familia, sharing a piece of his giant, laughing heart.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERDays when I had a long commute, he'd often meet me in the garage with a glass of wine. If things were tough, he'd say, “It's you and me kiddo. We can get through anything together.”
REMEMBRANCE CALLERTo have someone who's been your best love for 54 years, your best friend for 60 years, we have to tell them goodbye six weeks before they died and not see them again. I don't wish this to happen to anyone else, ever.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERWith unsung songs, visions not yet painted, he left us the inspiration to celebrate and cherish each breath, for our next is not promised. Until his last conscious moments before intubation, through strained breath, he was joking with medical staff.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERHe had always put himself last.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERWe loved each other deeply.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERThe hardest part for me was that we knew she was dying, and we couldn't go in there and hold her hand and kiss her forehead and speak to her. And it was just so sad for me to not be able to be there.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERBarry died on May 19th, at 2:37 p.m. I grieve for him and all the thousands of families who have had similar stories. Please take this disease seriously. It can be deadly.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERIf you can, hold your loved ones close. If not, hold them close in heart. Speak their names, tell their stories and let their legacy live in your laughter. Forgive those who have trespassed against you, and, please, please wear your mask properly. You never know whose life you could be saving. Rest in paradise, Larry Gayos.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERTwo days ago was my birthday, and I just -- I miss her.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERHe's a true example of love and (unintelligible).
REMEMBRANCE CALLERHe will be greatly missed.
REMEMBRANCE CALLERIt was mind boggling, it was sorrowful, it was awful. But I hope that he's resting in peace and remembers that we all love him very much.
NNAMDIThose remembrances were in honor of Eric Okin, Noe Alfarro, Dolly Guertin, Eugene Battle, Sr., Barry Cliff, Steniluge Sirage, Onalud and Larry Gayos. Joining us now is David Kessler. David is a grief expert. He's written numerous books, most recently, "Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief." David Kessler, thank you for joining us.
DAVID KESSLERI'm so glad to be here with you. Thank you.
NNAMDIWe'd love to have you join the conversation. If you've called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. But if you'd like to share a story with us, has someone close to you died of the coronavirus, how are you trying to honor their memory? You can reach us at 800-433-8850. David, we just heard some heartbreaking stories there. What are your thoughts on hearing those voices?
KESSLERWell, first of all, I'm so glad that you gave folks an opportunity to share their story, because, you know, we've been talking about these losses as statistics. And as each one of those folks know who shared a story, their loved one is not just a statistic. They're a person. And, today, you helped bring them to life in memory.
NNAMDIWell, we felt that these are people who are members of our community who will be missed by other members of our community, and their voices need to be heard. The sheer scale can be numbing to hear, 7,000 lost in our region alone. How important is it, David, to remember the people lost, that they were mothers, partners, uncles, friends?
KESSLERIt's so important. That's why I love that, you know, folks came on and shared their person's name. Whenever I'm working with someone and, you know, people are saying, tell me about your loss, I say, tell me about your loved one and their name. Because it's so important we name these folks. They're not just a loss. They're not just a statistic. And I'll tell you, the numbers are hard to comprehend.
KESSLEROne of the things that I often say to people, you know, when we see over 200,000 deaths in the U.S., I say, imagine that would be 1,500 planes crashing this year. That would be eight plane crashes a day, like a 737, the kind we fly on Southwest and other airlines. It's hard for our mind to comprehend what we're going through without those stories. So, so grateful you're bringing the stories to life and the people to life.
NNAMDIDoes the sheer magnitude of the loss that you just described change how we grieve?
KESSLERI think it's hard for us to take those numbers personally. And grief is so isolating an experience in a normal world, and now for us all to be in this abnormal world that's an isolating world, it's really heartbreak on top of heartbreak. So, I think it's even a more challenging time. And, as you heard from so many of your listeners that called in, many of them didn't even have a chance to say goodbye to their loved one or be there with them, which is just heartbreaking.
NNAMDIHere's Samuel in Woodbridge, Virginia. Samuel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMUELThank you, Kojo. I've been a longtime listener of your show. My remembrance for my father. HE passed away this year, May of this year. He was in a nursing home -- or, well, not even a nursing home. But he was in a care facility. His name was Felix Orun, an immigrant to this country. He served he survived a war, survived (unintelligible), and was unable to survive COVID.
NNAMDIWere you able to see him while he was suffering from COVID, Samuel?
SAMUELFortunately for me, I was able to see him over Zoom and through some phone conversations. He had dementia, so it was, you know, doubly hard to watch, but he fought hard. But I was not -- at the final moments, you know, I wasn't there to see him.
SAMUELI got a call from my mother. And we had been praying and we had been -- I'm a survivor of COVID myself. I was almost lost my battle with COVID in April, and so I was still recovering from COVID. I hadn't even gotten checked. I was unable to see anyone other than my wife. And, you know, because of being quarantined so long -- I was in recovery for a month -- I came out, and I was still in recovery. And then I heard that he had COVID.
NNAMDIDavid, is -- I mean, Samuel, is there anything you would have liked to say to your father that you didn't get a chance to say?
NNAMDIYeah, it's a lot. It's a lot. But thank you, Samuel, so much for sharing your story with us. And we are at least thankful that you have recovered from COVID-19. David, what we've also lost during this pandemic is the ability to gather together to mourn our loved ones. Why is grieving alone so much harder?
KESSLERWell, because our grief needs to be witnessed. You know, we weren't meant to be islands of grief. We want and need other people to see our pain. And those rituals help bring us peace. And, you know, in this time, there's no casseroles being brought over. We're not gathering around the dining room table. And it really complicates the grief that there can't be a ritual.
KESSLERAnd people will ask me, should we have a Zoom funeral now, a memorial, or something in person later? And I'll often say, do both, if you, can because grief needs to be witnessed in real time. And so, for anyone who has friends out there that are grieving, please Zoom with them, FaceTime with them, call them up. They need extra support now.
NNAMDIHow can people find a sense of peace in a time like this when burial and mourning rituals have been so upended?
KESSLERIt is difficult. It is. It's a heartbreak on top of a heartbreak. And I think we just need to really stock up on compassion for those who have had a loss. And the other thing that's happening is, a lot of times, we're in a good place to help those that're in grief. But so many people in grief have told me, they share that their loved one died, and instead of hearing, I'm sorry, what can I do for you or how can I help, they hear, oh, you know, my daughter's wedding got cancelled. And everyone is going through something. So, it's hard to find people.
KESSLERYou know, Samuel and so many of your other callers were mentioning they weren't able to be there physically with their loved one. I always remind people, even though you weren't able to be there, just know your loved one died with all of the love you've given them over the years, that that love is still with them when they go.
NNAMDIBecause you've experienced this yourself, David Kessler.
KESSLERI have. I started this work when my mother was dying alone in an ICU, and I was 13 years old. While at the hotel, we were across the street, a mass shooting took place. So, that's really what brought me into this career. And then four years ago after being a grief expert for decades, my own younger son David died, accidentally. And, you know, it really brought me to the epicenter. And, as many of your listeners know, I was so fortunate to write a couple of books with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who gave us the stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
KESSLERWhen I was going through all those stages myself, and I began to wrestle with acceptance, it wasn't enough. I wanted to find meaning. And that became my search to find meaning, and that has now become the sixth stage of grief, that I have in a new book that the Kubler-Ross family gave me permission to add, a stage through her iconic stages. And I think COVID-19 is a place where these people can't die without meaning. We've got to make sure the deaths are minimized, and we find a way to honor all those who have died.
NNAMDICan you talk a little bit more about that sixth stage meaning?
KESSLERSure. I think, you know, when someone dies, we don't want acceptance to be the end and it just to be over. And acceptance, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and I never intended it to sort of be the end of grieving. There is no end of grieving. But meaning can be something that doesn't take away the pain, but yet it cushions us in that pain, and it can help us so much.
KESSLERAnd I tell people about meaning. Meaning isn't in the death. You know, when we say, oh, there's no meaning in my loved one dying of COVID or some tragedy, I say, of course not, but the meaning is in us. Meaning is what we find afterwards. And that meaning can help us greatly.
NNAMDIDavid Kessler, what seems especially evident here with COVID is people's feelings of anger, that these deaths should not have happened, that they were preventable. What advice do you have for people who are feeling rightfully frustrated and angry?
KESSLERLet the anger out. You know, we live in a society that sort of shames and says anger is inappropriate. But, obviously, you know, we consider the stage and a normal thing. And with the stages, I always tell people, they're not linear, they're not a map for grief. But anger is, of course, what we feel when someone dies, and we should allow that to happen. I always tell people, anger is pain's bodyguard. Just make sure we're not hurting anyone.
KESSLERYou know, things you can do is you can scream in a car, you can exercise, you can hit a bat against your bed. That's my favorite. But you want to get that anger out. And if there's any way you can use that anger as fuel for change, do something with it. You know, help create a world where this doesn't continue to happen.
NNAMDIDavid, we spoke earlier about how when it comes to reporting on the coronavirus, people are eager to share the stories of loved ones. What's behind that need for someone's life, someone's death to be acknowledged?
KESSLERWell, we want our lives and our deaths to be marked. We want to be remembered, and this idea that so many people are dying, and it's all going unseen. And, I'll tell you, something that people in my groups have told me and maybe your listeners might share also is, when they look at the list of people who were in the 200,000 people, a lot of people are telling me they're not finding their loved ones there. So, my fear is those numbers are even underreported.
NNAMDIYes. How is that ability to deal with your individual loss affected by the sheer scale of this pandemic?
KESSLERWell, how do you digest those huge numbers and realize those are all people? One of the things that happened in March after the shutdown that occurred in so many areas is I started an online group. And I was so shocked that a thousand people joined, the free online group, joined the first day. And now it's in the thousands of people who have had no only a loved one die of COVID, but just loved ones who have died, and they weren't able to have the funeral.
KESSLERWe forget that not only are those people dying of COVID, but there's people dying of other things that can't see their loved ones, that can't have a funeral. So, it's such a challenging time. And if anyone is grieving alone and at least wants to virtually get help, just know if they go to grief.com, that free Facebook group is there for them.
NNAMDIYeah, we also have to take note of how great care providers have been by helping people to connect remotely with loved ones, even as you're helping people to connect virtually after their loved ones have passed. A lot of care providers are helping people to connect remotely with loved ones who are still alive, but who are suffering greatly from COVID-19. So, we have to have a great deal of appreciation for that. David, as people have processed this pandemic, you have seen the same stages of grief unfold. What did they look like?
KESSLERDenial was, this can't be happening to our modern world. Pandemics are in the past, how could this be happening to us? Then anger, why wasn't it seen? Why wasn't it stopped in time? Why didn't we do more? Then we went into bargaining. It was, okay, we're going to be home for a month, right, and then the world will go back to normal, or two months. And then depression, the sadness, oh, my gosh, this isn't going away. This world that we had in January is never coming back. It's not ever going to be that world again. The sadness, the depression of that.
KESSLERAnd then acceptance is, this is it. What can we do? Acceptance doesn't mean we like it or we're okay with it. It means we just have to acknowledge it and find what's in our control. What's in our control is wearing a mask, FaceTiming with our loved ones, Zooming with our loved ones, connecting with them virtually, taking a walk with them. All those things are in our control.
KESSLERAnd then meaning, the new sixth stage I've added, is really about what's the good that's happening in this? You know, that I've seen just people on the block where I live, we don't often even get to know who our neighbors are. And yet, now, we're all connected in text. Different ways that we're seeing an appreciating more the connections that we can create, even in this challenging world.
KESSLERIn your area, it's so important to me, I just did a FaceTime series this morning. There's a group in Wisconsin, PESI, that does education for those doctors and nurses. And I was making sure they're taken care of, because, as you mentioned, they're the heroes in this. And they're not only FaceTiming for our loved ones, but they're also there helping so many people just to connect as they're giving medicine and making sure they don't get COVID. They're helping us connect with our loved ones.
NNAMDIDavid, how difficult was it for you to write your most recent book, "Finding Meaning," given that it was the result of the death of your son?
KESSLERBrutal. It was brutal, but I wanted to find my own meaning. And I knew that interviewing people who had had a spouse die, a child die, a parent die would help so much. And I had to go back, obviously, and write a new afterword about the pandemic and what we're seeing with the racial injustices. And I'll tell you, one of the things that's my meaning is my son died at 21 years old. And, in kindergarten, he was voted most likely to become a helper, and never got a chance to be that helper in life. But I hope, with this new book, that he'll be a helper in death to help so many people dealing with loss.
NNAMDIPlease share the information, again, about your online grief group.
KESSLERYeah, they can find that at Grief.com, or it's in Facebook. You go to Facebook/groups/davidkessler. But Grief.com's the easiest way to find it.
NNAMDIDavid Kessler is a grief expert. He's written numerous books, most recently "Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief." David Kessler, thank you so much for joining us.
KESSLERThank you for having me and for what you're doing. I really appreciate it.
NNAMDIToday's show honoring local lives lost, including the voices you heard from those who have lost loved ones, was produced and edited by Julie Depenbrock. Thanks also to engineers Ben Privot and Mike Kidd, who assisted in audio editing.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, the legal battle continues over when census counting will come to an end. In this final stretch, how are local census workers ensuring everyone makes the count? Plus, Montgomery County is grappling with growth. Two major plans are on the table that will have far-reaching consequences for development, schools, transportation and more. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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