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When COVID deaths are dismissed or stigmatized, grief is mixed with shame and anger

Brett Sholtis, WITF on

Published in News & Features

Months after Kyle Dixon died, his old house in Lanse, Pennsylvania, is full of reminders of a life cut short.

His tent and hiking boots sit on the porch where he last put them. The grass he used to mow has grown tall in his absence. And on the kitchen counter, there are still bottles of the over-the-counter cough medicine he took to try to ease his symptoms at home as COVID-19 began to destroy his lungs.

Dixon was a guard at a nearby state prison in rural, conservative Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. He died of the virus in January at age 27. His older sister Stephanie Rimel was overwhelmed with emotion as she walked through Dixon’s home and talked about him.

“I’ll never get to be at his wedding,” Rimel said. “I’ll never see him old.”

Her expressions of grief, however, quickly turned to anger. Rimel recounted the misinformation that proliferated last year: Masks don’t work. The virus is a Democratic hoax to win the election. Only old people or people who are already sick are at risk.

Rimel said her brother believed some of that. He heard it from other prison guards, from family and friends on Facebook, she said, and from the former president, whom he voted for twice.

 

Falsehoods and conspiracies have fostered a dismissive attitude about the coronavirus among many people in rural Pennsylvania, where she and her siblings grew up, Rimel said. And, because of the misinformation, her brother didn’t always wear a mask or practice physical distancing.

When family members expressed dismissive beliefs about COVID-19, Rimel’s grief became even more painful and isolating. Rimel recalled a particularly tough time right after her brother had to be hospitalized. Even then, family members were repeating conspiracy theories on social media and bragging about not wearing masks, Rimel said.

Some of the people who attended Dixon’s funeral are still sharing COVID-19 misinformation online, said another sister, Jennifer Dixon.

“I wish that they could have been there his last days and watched him suffer,” she said. “Watch his heart still be able to beat. His kidneys still producing urine because [they were] so strong. His liver still working. Everything. It was his lungs that were gone. His lungs. And that was only due to COVID.”

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