New Jersey

‘Grief Overload:' Families Absorb Multiple Virus Deaths

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It may seem hard to imagine the cruel toll of the coronavirus getting any worse than losing one of those closest to you. But Johnjalene Woods has been dealt that pain three times over.

In a pandemic of countless sorrowful realities, it’s bringing a special kind of loss to people around the globe who are seeing their families shattered with multiple members succumbing to the disease.

“This generation, this level of my family has just been very quickly obliterated,” said Julia Chachere of Sag Harbor, New York, whose mother and stepfather died of COVID-19 four days apart. “All of a sudden, it’s gone. And all of a sudden, I’m that generation now.”

Though no data on the trend has emerged on families experiencing multiple fatalities due to the coronavirus, the stories have repeated around the world: Couples, siblings and other relatives falling ill and dying, their families left to rebuild life with a massive hole in it.

“This virus has taken so much from us,” said Sheila Cruz Morales of Teaneck, New Jersey, whose uncles — brothers Javier and Martin Morales, who lived one floor apart — died a day apart.

Not far from there, Joni Lewin was absorbing the loss of her lifelong best friend, Carolyn Martins-Reitz of Kearny, New Jersey, to the coronavirus, when Martins-Reitz’s son Thomas died a week later.

“They’ve lost half of a family,” Lewin said.

Moe Gelbart, a psychologist with Community Psychiatrists in Torrance, California, said families are finding their grieving process short-circuited by a pandemic that denies them final moments with their loved ones or normal funerals in which they can collectively mourn and embrace.

“Among stressful events, the death of a loved one or family members ranks No. 1,” he said. “Multiple losses within the same family ... is beyond overwhelming.”

As 94-year-old Saymon Jefferson was hospitalized with the coronavirus in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, he kept asking how his brother, 86-year-old Willie Lee Jefferson, was doing.

His family decided to spare Saymon the news that his younger brother had died in hopes of keeping his spirits up while he recovered. But within a few days, the older brother was dead, too.

“It just hit us so hard,” said Saymon’s daughter, Belvin Jefferson White. “It looked like everybody in our family was getting sick.”

Losing multiple loved ones at once isn’t unique to today’s pandemic. The flu that swept the globe in 1918 felled entire families. Accidents, natural disasters and terrorist attacks have claimed relatives, such as on 9/11, when one family saw two sons die, one a policeman, the other a firefighter.

The spectacle of five brothers aboard the USS Juneau dying in World War II was so horrifying that the U.S. military changed its policies to try and keep another family from being similarly decimated.

“People can go into grief overload,” said Dr. Varun Choudhary, a psychiatrist who oversees behavioral health for Magellan Health, an HMO. “The grief builds and accumulates.”

Woods knows that all too well.

The hairdresser from Gadsden, Alabama, had a happy existence living with her sister, brother-in-law and parents. Her cousin Michael Woods came around so often, he was almost like a brother.

Her father Billy was the first to fall ill, so sick he couldn’t even put his own socks on. Then her older sister Phacethia Posey caught it. And, finally, her cousin Michael.

And, in one horrible week, all three died.

If there’s any bright side, it’s that more didn’t perish. Woods and her mother also were infected and hospitalized and she still finds herself getting winded by the way the virus affected her lungs.

All three funerals were held the same day. Few could attend because of restrictions.

“There’s no answers why all of them had to leave,” Woods said. “I can ask the question all day.”


Associated Press writers Adam Geller and Deepti Hajela in New York and researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.

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