They add up to more than 1 million people.
They were Lolita and Louis from New York, a mother and son. They were Ella, a stickler for proper punctuation.
They were Tommy, who loved to rebuild vintage muscle cars. And Leona, who loved to play the Wheel of Fortune slots. Jeanne, who loved being quiet at 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 sparkly things. Thomas, who loved long, scenic car rides. Barry, who loved a good joke. Carolyn, who loved life.
And they were loved. Each left a crater of grief in their wake when they died of COVID-19. The New York Times examined the listing of survivors in nearly 3,600 obituaries for people all across the United States who have died of COVID-19 since March 2020. Each left behind an average of 15 loved ones.
About 20% of those who died left surviving parents and stepparents. About 40% left spouses, partners or fiances. More than 65% left siblings. About 75% left sons or daughters. More than 60% left grandchildren. And many left grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and best friends. The analysis did not measure how many young children and teenagers lost loved ones, but a recent study estimated that as many as 200,000 American children younger than 18 had lost a parent to COVID-19.
“The ripple effects of what we’ve been through, we are only beginning to see,” said Dr. Rebecca Brendel, incoming president of the American Psychiatric Association.
Brendel noted that grief from 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 family by their side because of social distancing, she said, so already overburdened health workers have often stepped in almost as surrogates in their last moments.
Ashton Verdery, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University, said that in early 2020, he was surprised by a persistent narrative that those who were dying from the virus were older, isolated people without close relationships. So he and other professors set out to measure the effect of each death.
They published a peer-reviewed study in July 2020 estimating that for every coronavirus death, approximately nine Americans would be left behind as survivors.
Verdery said in an interview that the true effect would be greater because the study did not account for some important kinds of relatives, such as in-laws and stepchildren.
“The central point is that these were not socially isolated people,” he said.
Several experts said there was evidence that grief during the pandemic, particularly stemming from the death of a loved one with COVID-19, has been uniquely terrible.
“We traditionally think about people having a good death where they are in a setting where they are free of pain, their loved ones are surrounding them and their loved ones can tell them how much they meant to them,” said Camille Wortman, a professor emeriti at Stony Brook University who has developed a guide of free online resources on grief and COVID-19.
She said those characteristics of a good death have often been “incompatible” with a death from COVID-19, when even holding a simple funeral, an important ritual for dealing with loss, has frequently been impossible.
Prolonged grief disorder, a syndrome in which people feel trapped in a never-ending loop of mourning that lasts for a year or more, was recently added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Some researchers have suggested grief from a COVID-19 death may put people at risk for the disorder. Wortman said she is concerned that it may.
Verdery and some colleagues presented research at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America, a nonprofit scientific and professional organization, comparing the health risks of people widowed by COVID-19 with those of people who were widowed before the pandemic. In their research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, the team found that losing a spouse to COVID-19 was associated with higher levels of depression and loneliness — perhaps, in part, because losing someone to the virus can be especially fraught.
And negative mental health outcomes, several experts said, may in turn leave people more vulnerable to physical health problems and chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure.
For Irene Glasse, the circumstances surrounding her father’s death from COVID-19 still torment her.
In early 2020, Glasse helped her father, John Grastorf, move into a long-term care facility in Maryland. He was deteriorating from pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable buildup of hard tissue in his lungs, and could no longer live alone. Glasse liked the facility, in part, because it was near her home, so she could visit often, and because it encouraged communal activities.
Around St. Patrick’s Day that year, the facility locked down as a pandemic precaution. Grastorf was largely confined to his room, and Glasse could not visit him for months. But she was grateful when the facility began allowing masked visits on the porch that summer.
Then there was an outbreak at the facility, and Grastorf, 80, caught COVID-19 in December 2020, just as vaccines were starting to be administered at long-term care facilities.
At the hospital, Glasse was allowed to “moonsuit up” and see her father briefly, but she was not allowed to spend more than a few moments with him — and she was not by his side when he died, something that still haunts her. Glasse said she went back to therapy and restarted a regimen of mood stabilizers.
“To lose him in this way was very hard,” she said.