TUCSON, Ariz. — As COVID-19 restrictions disappear around the country, many are trying to put the pandemic behind them. However, for the families who lost a loved one, the pandemic has left a scar that’s barely begun to heal.
“There isn't back to normal for me,” said Matt Emory.
The Tucsonan lost his fiancé, Luis, to COVID-19 in January.
The couple had plans to get married this summer surrounded by their six nephews and family, but instead, Emory said goodbye to his love of eight years.
“He's the one that is the fighter, you know, his life has not been easy, and he's always fought through,” said Emory of Luis. "And he said he was going to be there, and I believed him. And I know he fought as hard as he could."
The loss left Emory feeling empty and unsure.
“To me, there isn't closure. The door is always going to be open. There's always going to be the relationship and the memories,” he said.
That’s why he reached out to the COVID Grief Network. It’s joining young people from across the country and the world into small groups to talk about losing a loved one to COVID-19 and the unique, often lonely process of healing from this unprecedented and ongoing crisis. All the group sessions are totally free, and anyone can sign up.
“People so often feel like in their day-to-day lives, other folks who are not experiencing a loss simply just don't understand how painful it's been,” said Katherine Evering-Rowe, a licensed therapist, who works on the COVID Grief Network team facilitating some of the groups.
Emory met Jade Waddy in his small group. Waddy lost her grandfather to COVID-19 just months ago.
“My grandfather was, he was my super hero,” said Waddy. “I know at some point you lose loved ones, but for it to have been this way was very difficult for me.”
With their shared pain, comes fond memories, too, in sharing legacies left behind.
Emory said his fiancé left a forever impact on all he met. He was always caring for others and will be remembered for “his kind heart."
"That's what it comes down to,” said Emory.
He said Luis called relatives from the hospital to take care of Emory, who was also sick with the virus for a time.
“There's so many things that he leaves, but the main thing is just pushing me to be better and believing in myself. He believed in everybody, and he believed in me, you know, more than I believed in myself.”
Waddy remembers her grandfather’s larger-than-life presence.
“He was an advocate for voting and voting rights, church, having faith in something, and family,” she said.
The group meets every week for several weeks, and Evering-Rowe says even after the formal sessions are done, most groups continue keeping up with each other, becoming a vital support structure they couldn’t find anywhere else.
“It was easier to open up to this group and to be able to tell them, you know, 'Hey, this is what I'm feeling. I feel horrible right now. I didn't sleep all night. I've had these dreams.' I'm reliving the days leading up to Luis passing away, you know, and they all are in a similar situation,” said Emory.
They hope as the rest of the country tries to leave COVID-19 behind, they pause to remember the people who can’t do that.
“Something that's a huge trigger for me right now is ‘back to normal,’ and although I'm happy in a way and grateful that people are feeling better and aren't getting sick, there is no back to normal. It's living with what I'm going through, and so that's been very challenging,” said Emory.
“I do hope that as we all figure out this next phase or this current phase,” said Waddy, worried as infection rates are spiking again in her home state of Texas. “I do hope that we don't forget all those that have lost their lives, all ages, races, backgrounds, hometowns, everyone, and just take a moment to keep those families in your thoughts and prayers, keep us all in your thoughts and prayers."