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Grieving a COVID-19 loss, families prepare for a Thanksgiving without loved ones

Grieving a COVID-19 loss, families prepare for a
Thanksgiving without loved ones 1

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Jerry Stoddard loved to travel. Animals sensed something in him that always kept them near. He picked up running about six years ago and completed a few full and half marathons.

At 70, Stoddard may have been retired, but he kept plenty busy.

On April 6, after about a week of feeling ill and a week in the hospital, he became one of the earliest known Kentuckians to die of COVID-19. 

“It was just so fast, and unexpected,” said his daughter, Katie Stoddard. “It was when we didn’t really realize how serious this thing was.”

She remembers getting a call in late March from her mother, who mentioned her father had a sore throat and mild fever. A few days later, both her parents couldn’t taste or smell. Her dad wasn’t eating much. And he was so tired.

Her parents went to their doctor, but the prescriptions didn’t seem to help. Two days later, her dad entered the intensive care unit. Six days later, he was dead

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“It makes me furious when people won’t take it seriously,” she said. “You’re affecting other people’s health, not just your own.”

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As the virus surges and public health and government officials call on Americans to resist gathering for Thanksgiving, the nation marks a grim milestone in the fight against the coronavirus: more than 250,000 lives have been taken with hundreds more lost each day.

For these quarter million Americans, there will be no Thanksgiving gathering.

Their families, who may not have even gathered to mourn their loved one, will be left to mark the holiday without them. 

Katie Stoddard’s last memory of her father was when he had to say goodbye through a cell phone video call. He was on a ventilator, seemingly unconscious. A nurse, holding the camera, said she’d stay in the room for as long as the daughter needed.

“I’m glad that I did it, but I almost wish I didn’t,” Katie Stoddard said. “They say he knew I was there, but I’m not sure he did.”

Seven months later, Katie Stoddard, who lives in Colorado along with her brother, is readying to spend her Thanksgiving at home with her boyfriend, foregoing a typical gathering with family.

Her parents often hosted Thanksgiving, as her father loved to cook. His Brussel sprouts and corn pudding were standouts.

She knows the holidays will be difficult without him, especially for her mother. His birthday, on Halloween, just passed. Her parents would have celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary this Thanksgiving week.

“It still doesn’t seem real,” she said. “I want to call him all the time and tell him things. I have to remember that he’s gone.”

A physician, father lost

Lee Zimmerman remembers his father always being a bit larger than life. 

For more than 55 years, Dr. Nathan Zimmerman was an old-time family doctor. He made house calls and delivered babies.

He would fly from the dinner table and out of the house when the telephone rang, a patient in need on the other end of the line. On many holidays, he’d do rounds at the hospital.

His genuine interest in others drew attention to him, something the longtime physician admittedly relished.

Even after retiring a decade ago at 83, shrinking to 5-foot-2 inches and losing enough in the rear to make keeping his pants up a challenge, the elder Zimmerman still loomed large.

“When he walked into a room, he was like a little giant,” Lee Zimmerman said.

For half a year after Kentucky first declared a state of emergency, Nathan Zimmerman, 93, avoided the coronavirus.

Though he lived with congestive heart failure as well as kidney and Parkinson’s diseases, the former physician was still working out with a trainer up until the week he was diagnosed with COVID-19.

He and his wife, Ann, learnedthey had close contact with someone who later tested positive.

On Sept. 25, they got results. She was negative. He wasn’t.

When he learned the news, his shoulders slumped. He suspected his likely fate and made a decision.

He went into a spare bedroom and stayed there for the next six days. He wouldn’t allow his wife in, nor other family members, only a home health care worker.

His father, always the physician, was realistic about the dying process and knew it was his time.

On that sixth day, Oct. 1, Zimmerman died.

Unlike some coronavirus victims, he died in his own bed, in his own home, beside someone who knew and loved him.

“This is the last guy who ever wanted to leave a party,” Lee Zimmerman said. “He loved people. He loved socializing. … He didn’t want to miss anything.”

There was no funeral last month, as his father intended. The family also won’t gather for Thanksgiving this week, Lee Zimmerman said, “out of respect to this damn pandemic.”

“I guess in a way it’s almost okay that the family celebrations are put on hold because of the pandemic,” he said. “Because they’d be really damn tough without him.”

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Coping with holiday heartache

A heightened sense of grief and loss at the holidays is a well-known experience in the grief counseling community, said Katie McCarthy, manager of Hosparus Health’s Grief Counseling Center.

“Be kind to yourself if, in particular, this is the first holiday season without your loved one,” she said. “Grieving, which is an active process, is made more complicated by the pandemic.”

The unexpected and sudden nature of COVID-19 can leave loved ones feeling powerless and robbed of the chance to say goodbye.

Even for families of those who died of non-coronavirus reasons during the pandemic, their last moments with their loved one may have looked very different from how they had planned.

Grieving rituals are limited in size if not entirely virtual or delayed to some future date.

“In general, we’re all grieving what the pandemic has done to our lives,” McCarthy said.

Despite restrictions on Thanksgiving this year, McCarthy encouraged people to not isolate with their feelings and to seek out virtual support groups.   

“If you stuff it down, it will make you sick,” she said. “You don’t have to be alone with it.”

Seasonal depression in 2020: Here’s how to handle it

Grief and gratitude 

A few members of Jerry Stoddard’s family gathered over the summer to fulfill his final wishes.

He wanted his ashes spread in two places: beneath a favorite tree in Louisville, Kentucky, where he had buried his dogs and in Telluride, Colorado, where he’d vacationed while visiting his children.

They found a scenic lookout spot, surrounded by lush trees and sloping mountain sides.

“It’s really beautiful,” daughter Katie Stoddard said. “I understand why he wanted to be there.”

Lee Zimmerman is working through his grief. He’s upset about how his dad died. He wants to complain, having lost his best friend likely a few years earlier than expected.

“Intellectually, I know I was fortunate to have him for 93 years, but emotionally, it’s not as easy,” he said. “We’re all sorry to lose him, but I know everybody’s life is better and more fulfilled because they got to spend part of life with him as a friend.”

While he sees the troubling new infection numbers each evening, he’s buoyed by the news of effective vaccines. He’s hopeful families will soon be spared the heartache his has experienced.

“With the holidays coming up, this is an incredibly fresh scab,” he said. “But at least the way I feel about it, when you can mix grief with such incredible gratitude and appreciation, it’s an indication of the love that we have.” 

Follow reporter Matthew Glowicki on Twitter @mattglo

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