A closer look at the impact of 1 million Covid deaths in the US

They add up to more than 1 million people.

They were Lolita and Louis from New York, mother and son. You were Ella, an advocate of correct punctuation.

You were Tommy who loved rebuilding classic muscle cars. And Leona, who loved playing the Wheel of Fortune slots. Jeanne who loved to be quiet on the beach. Mary, who loved dancing to Mexican music. Johnny who loved John Wayne movies. Danny who loved watching hippos at the zoo. Anne-Marie, who loved glittery things. Thomas, who loved long, scenic drives. Barry, who loved a good joke. Carolyn who loved life.

And they were loved. Each left a crater of grief when they died from Covid. The New York Times examined the listing of survivors in nearly 3,600 obituaries for people across the United States who have died of Covid since March 2020. Each left an average of 15 dependents.

About 20 percent of those who died left surviving parents and stepparents. About 40 percent left spouses, partners or fianc├ęs. More than 65 percent left behind siblings. About 75 percent left sons or daughters. More than 60 percent left grandchildren. And many left grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews and best friends. The analysis doesn’t measure how many young children and teens have lost loved ones, but a recent study estimates that as many as 200,000 American children under the age of 18 have lost a parent to Covid-19.

“We’re just beginning to see the impact of what we’ve been through,” said Dr. Rebecca Brendel, the new president of the American Psychiatric Association.

dr Brendel pointed out that grief over a death affects a wide range of people, beyond those who might be mentioned in an obituary. For example, many coronavirus patients have died without families by their side due to social distancing, she said, leaving already overburdened health workers often almost stepping in as backups in their final moments.

Ashton Verdery, associate professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University, said he was surprised in early 2020 by a persistent narrative that those dying from the virus are elderly, isolated people with no close relationships. So he and other professors set out to measure the impact of each death.

They released a peer-reviewed study in July 2020 estimating that for every death from the coronavirus, about nine Americans would be left as survivors.

dr Verdery said in an interview that the actual impact would be larger because the study didn’t take into account some important types of relatives, such as in-laws and stepchildren.

“The key point is that these were not socially isolated people,” he said.

Several experts said there was evidence that grief during the pandemic, particularly at the death of a loved one with Covid, has been uniquely horrific.

“We traditionally think of people having a good death when they’re in an environment where they’re free from pain, their loved ones are around them, and their loved ones can tell them how much they mean to them,” Camille said Wortman, a professor emeritus at Stony Brook University who developed a guide of free online resources on grief and Covid.

She said these characteristics of a good death have often been “inconsistent” with a death from Covid, when even a simple funeral, an important ritual in dealing with loss, has often been impossible.

Prolonged grieving disorder, a syndrome in which people feel trapped in an endless loop of grief lasting a year or more, was recently added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Some researchers have suggested that grief from a Covid death could put people at risk for the condition. dr Wortman said she’s concerned that might be the case.

dr Verdery and some colleagues presented research comparing the health risks of people widowed by Covid to those widowed before the pandemic at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America, a nonprofit scientific and professional organization . In their research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, the team found that losing a spouse to Covid was associated with higher levels of depression and loneliness – perhaps in part because losing someone to the virus can be particularly distressing .

And negative mental health effects, several experts said, could in turn make people more vulnerable to physical health problems and chronic conditions like high blood pressure.

Irene Glasse is still tormented by the circumstances surrounding her father’s death from Covid.

In early 2020, Ms. Glasse helped her father, John Grastorf, move to a long-term care facility in Maryland. He deteriorated due to pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable accumulation of hard tissue in his lungs, and was unable to live on his own. Ms. Glasse liked the facility partly because it was close to her home so she could visit often and because it encouraged community activities.

Around St. Patrick’s Day 2020, the facility was closed as a precaution against a pandemic. Mr. Grastorf was largely confined to his room and Mrs. Glasse was unable to visit him for months. But she was grateful when the facility began allowing masked visits to the porch this summer.

Then there was an outbreak at the facility and Mr Grastorf, 80, fell ill with Covid in December 2020 just as long-term care facilities started giving vaccines.

At the hospital, Ms Glasse was allowed to “get dressed” and briefly see her father, but she wasn’t allowed to spend more than a few moments with him – and she wasn’t by his side when he died, something that still haunts her. Ms Glasse said she has returned to therapy and resumed treatment with mood stabilizers.

“Losing him like that was very hard,” she said.

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