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Coronavirus grief is like no other. 'Everything just feels fake'

Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Parenting News

In normal times, medical staff would give a family privacy in such intimate moments. Witnessing it now can leave nurses with "this horrible guilt of being there, when you know you shouldn't be there," Blunt said. "It's really tough."

He worries about COVID's lingering emotional impact on caregivers. "These will stick with us uniquely," Blunt said. "I think a lot of staff are going to be scarred by this process and have a lot to work through."

Rikki Larson is a clinical social worker at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital in Glendale, which allows short individual visits to patients on the verge of death.

But she can no longer console the grieving the way she always has. "I like to be able to hug people and comfort them," she said. "I've left the hospital more times than I can tell with someone else's tears on my shoulder."

Now she has to keep her distance, at most quickly laying her hand on a shoulder. "It's very hard -- it's not the same," Larson said.

Stephanie Ryu, a chaplain on the palliative care team at Providence Little Co. of Mary Medical Center Torrance, is even more distant. She started working from home several weeks ago.

"None of us imagined in any universe we'd be able to do our jobs remotely," she said. Given the severe limits on family visitation, she knows it's not that different from the hospital, where she was already offering solace mostly on Zoom and FaceTime.

Only now, she said, "this grief is pouring out of my computer into my home."

At hospitals that aren't on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle, visitation limits aren't as strict. But they can still be wrenching for families.

Rachel Rusch, a clinical social worker in palliative care at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, will not soon forget her conversation with a teenage patient and her mother. The end was near for the girl, who had cardiovascular disease.

"The piece that has stayed in my heart," Rusch said, "was the eyes of her mother across the bedside" as Rusch explained that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, only a few members of their huge extended family would be allowed in the room during her daughter's final hours.


Such experiences have left Rusch thinking of "all the ripple effects that are going to continue in the days and weeks and months and years to come because the end of someone's story was so altered from anything anyone might have prepared themselves for," she said.

Wayne Strom entered the Kensington assisted living facility in Redondo Beach in early December after a series of falls made it difficult for him to walk.

His wife, Kathy, who was staying with her mother in Rancho Palos Verdes, spent every day with him, helping with his physical therapy and eating meals together.

That routine came to an abrupt halt on March 12, when the pandemic prompted the Kensington to suspend family visits. Strom switched to calling Wayne several times a day and realized something was amiss in late March when he said he was too tired to talk.

He was admitted to the hospital on March 30, tested positive for the coronavirus and died three days later. Strom had not seen her husband of 38 years for three weeks.

"I think it's taken me a while to realize that he's gone because I wasn't with him at the end, and we haven't had a memorial," she said.

She still puts her cell phone by her bed, expecting Wayne to call to say their nightly prayer together.

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