Lockdown and widowhood: Getting to the other side of grief during COVID-19

One year ago this week, my husband, Stan Cohen, died of COVID-19. Losing a spouse is one of the most upsetting events to befall a human being. Over the course of these 12 months, I have grieved and healed — as would have been the case for any widow, at any moment in time. However, the past year has not been your typical “moment in time.” At my one-year widowhood “anniversary” I am looking back, to evaluate how my experience was shaped by the pandemic.

To paraphrase one of my synagogue’s rabbis, in this year of so much death, even the rituals of death were disrupted. My journey began in a cold spring rain; six family members stood in a cemetery, each six feet apart, as my husband was laid to rest. Other family members, friends, and colleagues watched on Zoom.

Our Jewish tradition calls for a seven-day period, known as shiva, for mourners to remain home, while the community provides food, hugs, and remembrances. Most long-standing traditions for comforting the bereaved necessitate being physically together. Our family sat alone in our separate homes, receiving shiva visits online and food through contactless deliveries. The social isolation during our first days of mourning added complexity to the grieving process.

Filling the void

The isolation continued once shiva ended and life returned to normal. Last spring, “normal” meant a shared lockdown existence. It is common for the bereaved to feel lonely at this juncture: the reality of a loved one’s absence is sinking in, and fewer friends are on hand to ease the pain. With friends and family more inwardly focused, finding comfort presented special challenges.

Sue Ducat and Stan Cohen celebrate Stan’s 86th birthday in Rockville, Maryland, in January 2020.

As I recited the traditional “mourner’s kaddish” prayer during online synagogue services, I found my community. Many who joined me were saying the same prayer for loved ones they had recently lost, so we were united in our collective grief. Despite our lack of physical togetherness, those services were a shared, and emotionally meaningful, experience.

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As the lockdown continued, and, with it, extremely limited opportunities for social gathering, I found a way to fill the void. By developing regular email correspondence with several professional and personal contacts, I created for myself a new communication outlet. In non-pandemic times, the rush of competing activities would have precluded these extensive and rich exchanges. They have provided a perfect antidote for grief.

Finding my village

Getting through holidays and personal milestones is something every widow learns to handle. The pandemic has added COVID-specific milestones to those observances. The personal ones turned out to be less challenging. To mark my husband’s birthday in January, I organized a small family gathering.

On the other hand, the one-year anniversary of my husband’s March 11 COVID-19 lockdown, proved to be among the year’s darkest days for me. One year earlier, my husband and I had been eating dinner at the skilled nursing facility where he lived. Suddenly, all family members were told to leave immediately. The lockdown had begun.

I hurriedly kissed my husband goodbye. It would be our last moment together.

Sue Ducat in Washington, D.C., in April 2021.

As I look back on the past year, it’s understandable how challenged I was by my “double whammy” status, grieving the loss of my husband at a time when every aspect of life was completely upended. It would have been easy to feel angry, helpless and alone. Yet, COVID-19 has given the phrase, “it takes a village,” new meaning.

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On the surface, the village lies empty, its residents huddled inside, to avoid this deadly and still-mysterious virus. Behind the village’s empty exterior, though, the spirit of community is everywhere. As more Americans are fully vaccinated, the village will slowly come back to life. In the meantime, I urge anyone forced to walk in my shoes to look past the village’s row of still-locked doors. If you do, you just might, as I did, find a few open windows, and a way forward.

Sue Ducat is the senior communications director of Health Affairs. She and Stan Cohen, who died on April 20, 2020, from COVID-19, had been married since 1988.

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