It’s been more than a year since COVID-19 began decimating Ali A. Abdulla’s family. His mother and grandmother died 11 days apart in March 2020. Within months, the disease also took his father, other grandmother and a brother.
A lot has changed since then. Vaccines have quelled much of the fear that gripped the country, and as spring and then summer dawned, ushered in a joyous period of reopenings that for many has made life seem almost normal again. Travel. Restaurants. Beaches. They’re all back on the table.
But normalcy eludes the 33-year-old Abdulla, of Tukwila, who coaches a soccer club for Somali youth. Five losses, including his beloved mother, who went to her grave without the rituals of their Muslim faith because of pandemic restrictions.
“I’m lost,” he said, holding his head in his hands as he sat on a wall surrounding a Tukwila plaza, his still-raw grief piercing a sunny June day that brought people outside to sit and chat.
Abdulla goes every week to visit the Snohomish cemetery where his mom and grandma were buried side by side. He said he wants his mom to know his kids — he and his wife have three, with one on the way — so the couple often brings them, and they have dinner there.
Grief is always a world of its own. But this is an especially strange time for people bereaved during the pandemic, whether their loved ones died of COVID-19 or not. It is a time of dissonance with an atmosphere of celebration and, for many, one of delayed communal grieving as restrictions on gatherings considerably ease.
In the early days of the pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee prohibited the gatherings that help people cope and stay true to their beliefs: funerals, memorial services and services at churches, mosques and synagogues. He later allowed such events, but severely limited the numbers, gradually relaxing the rules as coronavirus case counts dropped.
People made do. The Rev. Jim Johnson, pastor of St. Jude and Holy Innocents Catholic churches in Redmond and Duvall, respectively, recalled reading the funeral rites over the phone to an elderly woman whose husband died of COVID-19. She had come down with coronavirus herself and was in the hospital.
“She asked that nurses open the window for her,” Johnson said. “She could see some blue sky.”
Zoom memorial services became common.
“It’s a gift and it’s not a gift, this COVID grieving time,” said Martha Mitchell-Colby, whose son, James Deane Colby, known as JD, died after a bicycle accident last June. He was 30.
“I had to be with myself,” said the retired Port Orchard counselor. “I can’t be traveling off to Europe and I can’t be going to the gym every day. I have to work with my own feelings and my grief and really accept and know the loss.” That made the time “almost more precious, more honoring, more deep.”
Yet, for many, the inability to mourn in traditional ways compounded their sorrow, said Laura Takacs, clinical director of grief services at Virginia Mason Medical Center. Her department works with people who are grieving because of sudden traumatic death, including suicide, homicide, drug overdose and, now, the coronavirus.
Like those other kinds of deaths, one from COVID-19 can elicit post-traumatic stress symptoms, Takacs said. Some of her clients, forbidden by hospital protocols from being at a loved one’s bedside, talk about saying goodbye by video chat, seeing fear in a family member’s eyes or their discomfort from being on a ventilator and masked.
Mohamed Shidane, deputy director of the Somali Health Board, said the impact of the coronavirus reminds him of the civil war he fled as a child in Somalia. Everything can change in a day, and nobody is safe.
In Washington, as of July 2, 5,939 people have died of the coronavirus and more than 600,000 nationwide. Takacs said we won’t know the fallout for a while, but she expects increased societal anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation and possibly, drug overdoses.
A contributing factor for some is a sense of stigma, laden with shame and blame, according to Takacs. What did or didn’t a family member do to catch the disease? At the same time, those dealing with a death that wasn’t from COVID-19 can feel guilty for even talking about it, as if their loss is unimportant.
The bombardment of news about getting back to normal isn’t helping. “It can feel very much like the world is moving forward,” Takacs said. “And they can feel very left behind.”
One way of moving forward is finally having a ceremony now that hundreds of people can attend, as long as social distancing is practiced if unvaccinated people are present. Families have sometimes been holding on to urns with their loved ones’ cremated remains, waiting for the chance to hold a memorial.
From March through May, the four Catholic cemeteries in King County placed 130 cremated remains above or below ground, compared to 54 during the same period last year, according to Richard Peterson, president of Associated Catholic Cemeteries. Peterson attributes the increase to delayed ceremonies.
“It’s been busy,” he said, with his biggest cemetery, Holyrood in Shoreline, occasionally placing four to six caskets or cremated remains a day, double the usual number.
A few immigrant families have held off on burials, hoping to send their loved one’s body to their home country, which hasn’t been possible during the pandemic. Seattle funeral home Bonney Watson, in addition to handling an uptick of urn burials, has been storing casketed remains for those families.
April Graves this month planned to bury urns holding the ashes of her dad and stepmom with a graveside ceremony and outdoor celebration of their lives in Hansville, a town on the tip of the Kitsap Peninsula where the Seattle couple had a second home.
Her dad, Bill Graves, and stepmom, Diana Clay Graves, both died in October 2019 of chronic diseases. Her stepmom, who died first, wanted a celebration of her life on the beach in the spring, so that was the plan for her and Graves’ dad.
“And then COVID hit,” April Graves said.
Graves, who lives in Seattle, had just started a new job in marketing and sales at an assisted living facility. The stress was considerable. She would talk to families who felt they needed to move a loved one into assisted living but were worried about COVID-19.
Those already at Graves’ facility practiced social distancing by staying in their apartments. While that may have staved off the coronavirus, it wasn’t good for their overall emotional or physical health. “It took so much energy to support residents and their families,” Graves said. She put her own grief “on the back burner.”
As the date of the ceremony approached, Graves began working through the grieving process. On this May day, she was writing a letter to her dad. They had become closer in recent years. She took him to medical appointments as he dealt with cancer, and was impressed by his courage and sense of humor.
She wanted to thank him for going to her school events, and tell him she was proud of everything he had accomplished. He and his wife ran a Kirkland escrow business for decades, and he had developed land in North Bend and Renton. “And just that I will miss him,” Graves said.
Mitchell-Colby, a year after her son’s death, said she felt like she was doing some reliving as she went through photos, preparing for a June celebration of his life and memorial service in a church and then a park on Bainbridge Island.
She recalled JD’s pride in his work ethic, as a crew foreman for an asphalt company, his outdoorsiness, which led him to bike and hike after work, and his big circle of friends. At 30, he had come into his own, she said.
There were so many unknowns about the pandemic when JD died. Because of limited testing, many people weren’t even sure if they had coronavirus or not. JD fell off his bike while riding around the grounds of a high school, leading to a head injury, but what caused him to fall?
“We don’t know,” Mitchell-Colby said, and she wonders if he might have an aneurysm or some other body failure due to COVID-19. In the months preceding the accident, he had pneumonia and strangely lost sight in one eye for a day. After his death, she looked into whether he had been tested for COVID. He hadn’t, leaving his mom with an uncertainty she feels will always linger.
Then, there was the question of how to honor her son amid the restrictions. Within a month or two, she saw others holding virtual memorial services. “I was just sitting here being confused, like I’m missing the boat,” she said.
At New Year’s, two of JD’s friends wanted to do something. They and Mitchell-Colby stood in the parking lot of her apartment complex, in the rain, and lit candles.
Sometime after that, she said to herself, “this is not right.” She wanted the closure of a memorial service and set a date for June. She felt it was important to post an obituary and details of the service in the newspaper. “Just because it’s a ritual of grieving,” she said.
There is no postponing certain rituals. If they’re not done at death, they’re not done at all. That’s the way it is for the Muslim rite of thoroughly washing the body, by family and community members, before covering it with a white cloth.
It’s a religious obligation, explained Mohamed Sheikh Hassan, who has helped arrange burials for the Somali and larger Muslim community for decades. So it was distressing to be told by authorities that anybody who died of COVID-19 could not be washed.
Eventually, the community settled on spraying the sealed bag into which the deceased was put, Hassan said. Joe Greene, director of the Seattle Jewish Chapel, used by Jews of various denominations to prepare bodies for burial, said his facility also has modified the Jewish practice of washing the body for the deaths it has handled involving the coronavirus.
Abdulla said his mother and maternal grandmother were among the first to die of COVID-19 among local Somali immigrants, coming down with the disease after his mom went to visit another family grieving a COVID-19 loss. Unable to wash their bodies at all, he said he felt he was burying them like animals.
“I’m going to be living with this for the rest of my life,” Abdulla said. Sometimes, because thick plastic obscured the bodies, he asks himself: “Is it my mom I buried?”
As for his dad, who died about two months later in Somalia, where he lived, Abdulla lamented, “I couldn’t be there for him.” And the same went for Abdulla’s paternal grandmother and 38-year-old half-brother, who died shortly afterward.
He takes comfort in the effort he made to ensure other families avoided the same fate and protected themselves, posting about his experiences on social media. But his mom’s death, in particular, has left a gaping hole. They lived together, along with Abdulla’s grandma, wife and then two young children.
Jamila Omar Abdulla had brought her four kids and her mother to the U.S. from a Yemeni refugee camp, raised the children as a single mom, and gave Abdulla advice on just about everything. He admired her. Called “Mama Jamila,” she mentored women at their mosque and raised money for Somalis back home who were orphans, disabled or otherwise in need of support.
Abdulla and a brother have started a foundation in their mom’s name to continue her legacy. He wants to have a memorial service for her, too, but not until next year or the year after. Given everything he’s gone through, including his own relatively mild case of COVID-19, he’s cautious.