LOS ANGELES -- It's been seven weeks since Karen Blanks' brother-in-law died from COVID-19, but his death still doesn't seem real to her.
She and her husband couldn't visit Scott Blanks in the hospital. They couldn't view his body at the mortuary before he was cremated. They're not holding a memorial service until large gatherings are permitted.
"Everything just feels fake -- like I'm in this big, clouded fog, and someone is telling me, 'Your brother-in-law died,'" she said. "It doesn't feel real because everything has been so different."
The cruel toll of the COVID-19 pandemic reaches beyond its victims to hundreds of thousands of family members and friends who have been robbed of communal support and time-honored rituals to help them cope with the loss of loved ones.
Long after a vaccine has halted the spread of the novel coronavirus, many of the bereaved will struggle with feelings of guilt and prolonged grief over all that they couldn't do and say in the final days and hours of a relative's life.
Sweeping virus-related restrictions -- on bedside visits, funerals, church gatherings, support-group meetings, air travel and even consoling hugs from caregivers -- are affecting not just COVID-19 victims and their survivors but "the way everyone is dying right now and how everyone is grieving," said Dale Larson, a professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University.
"You couldn't design a more impactful set of conditions to disrupt the kind of things we like to see happening to support us in times of loss and grief. It's just staggering," he said. "I think the novel coronavirus is creating a novel form of traumatic bereavement for a large number of survivors."
Karen Blanks had known Scott, a 34-year-old dental assistant from Whittier, since he was a freshman in high school and she started dating his older brother Quentin.
"He was my Scottie. I loved him," she said. "Not being able to be by his side -- for me, it's almost traumatizing.... Even after he passed, I wanted to go to the mortuary to see him, thinking that would be OK, and I couldn't even do that."
The social distancing, shelter-in-place rules and limits on hospital visitation that are hallmarks of the global pandemic have deprived people of the most fundamental deathbed connections.