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Why losing a loved one amid COVID-19 means a different kind of goodbye

The spread of COVID-19 has dramatically altered the way Americans both live and die. We asked our viewers to share their stories about losing loved ones during the pandemic, whether to COVID-19 or to something else. Amna Nawaz reports on the strange and sorrowful process of grief for people in isolation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The spread of COVID-19 has dramatically altered the way we both live and now, unfortunately, how we die in America.

    We reached out to you, our viewers, to hear your stories about those who have lost loved ones to both COVID-19 and other illnesses.

    Amna Nawaz looks at the process of grief for people in isolation.

  • Keeya Steel:

    He was an absolute wonderful, kind person.

  • Pete Wasserman:

    She was like 4'11", and she wouldn't hold back on telling people what she thought.

  • Kimberly Reese:

    He would always say, well, a better day is coming. You just got to keep living.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The memory of her father makes Kimberly Reese smile today, even though the pain of losing him in early April to COVID-19 still lingers.

  • Kimberly Reese:

    I wake up every day with this emptiness and trying to figure out, how do I fill that void?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hospital rules during the pandemic prevented the tight-knit family in New Orleans from saying goodbye to 75-year-old Wayne Reese Sr.

    What was it like in those final days, when you weren't even allowed to be by his bedside?

  • Wayne Reese Jr.:

    I think that was the hardest part. My dad was there for everybody. And that was heartbreaking not being there for him.

  • Kimberly Reese:

    Not being able to touch him and talk to him, that's going to probably haunt us really for the rest of our lives.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's an ache Keeya Steel of Edina, Minnesota, knows all too well.

  • Keeya Steel:

    I think that time of being with someone when they're passing away is very sacred.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But she couldn't be with her friend, Clark Osojnicki, who died of COVID-19 earlier this month. She was also unable to see her uncle, Mike Tracy (ph), and her grandmother, Dee Swaggert (ph), both of whom died in nursing homes within days of each other from Alzheimer's.

  • Keeya Steel:

    I really wanted to be there with my dad. And we got word that only he could go visit her. That was probably the hardest part of this whole week, not being able to be in the room with him, and really let that grief kind of be free and open and vulnerable with him.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For thousands of Americans, laying loved ones to rest during a time of social distancing, the goodbyes are not what they imagined.

  • Nicole Heidbredern:

    The social ritual of holding your loved one's hands while they die, and your grief at a viewing at a funeral, is so fundamental to the human species.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nicole Heidbreder has worked as both a hospice nurse and an end-of-life doula, helping people prepare for how they wish to die.

  • Nicole Heidbreder:

    We are tribal people. And that is how our species has evolved. And to have that taken away from people, I really feel is going to cause a lot of long-term grief that is going to need a lot of help processing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Pete Wasserman's grandmother Gerda died earlier this month from natural causes just weeks shy of her 100th birthday.

  • Pete Wasserman:

    My grandmother's brother, mother, father were all killed in the Holocaust. She worked in a slave labor camp in Latvia for her teenage, young adult years, then came to the United States when she was about 25 after the war.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The family had planned for a traditional Jewish funeral. But New Jersey rules banning large gatherings blocked that memorial.

  • Pete Wasserman:

    We'd imagined, like, this, you know, coming together of family to honor her in that way. And so we were robbed of that a little bit.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A cruel carryover of COVID-19, funerals can fuel the spread of the virus. A February service in Albany, Georgia, is thought to have sparked an outbreak, leading to nearly 1,500 cases today and more than 100 deaths.

    Funeral homes across the country have responded with new restrictions, defining a new reality in how America mourns.

  • Lanier Levett:

    I never in my lifetime thought I would ever have to experience a pandemic right here, up close and personal.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lanier Levett helps run five funeral homes in Atlanta. Just a few weeks ago, he says, a typical service hosted up to 250 people. Today, no more than 10 are allowed.

  • Lanier Levett:

    Life is different now for us and our funeral homes and the way we're conducting funerals, the inability for families to properly give the type of send-off that they are accustomed to giving.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In New York state, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, funeral workers are struggling to keep up.

  • Thomas Cheeseman:

    Funeral homes are overwhelmed. And there is no number. People are dying, and we're running out of space in all the funeral homes.

  • Keri Butkevich:

    Grief feels isolating in the best of times. And when we're already isolated even more right now, it feels even more so.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Keri Butkevich, who lives in Richmond, California, has put memorial plans on hold, after her father, David Lindstrom, died recently of complications from dementia.

  • Keri Butkevich:

    There are so many people that my dad loved who loved my dad that don't have a space to say goodbye.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    To allow some grief to be shared, and safely, some facilities are now offering drive-up funerals, walk-through viewings, and livestreamed services.

  • Lanier Levett:

    Probably 30 percent of our families will choose to livestream their services prior to the pandemic. But now about 80 percent of the families are choosing to livestream. And so that's been an added benefit.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That was a silver lining for Pete Wasserman. He bid farewell to his grandmother over videoconference, with a rabbi, family, and friends all dialed in from Michigan, Nevada, and Germany.

  • Pete Wasserman:

    All these people that ordinarily wouldn't have been able to join were able to join. And, in that way, it was really — it was really nice, really, like, heartening that so many people cared.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Though he admits he's not sure what his grandmother would make of it all.

  • Pete Wasserman:

    If she knew that we had to do a virtual service for her funeral, her mind would been blown, just quite simply.

    Like, I remember when we told her that she was on the Internet, she was like, how did I get on the Internet?

    (LAUGHTER)

    You know, like, get me out of there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Heidbreder says this moment, difficult as it is, provides a chance for open and honest conversations with loved ones.

  • Nicole Heidbreder:

    A way of dealing with that is saying to them, well, I understand that you may not want to talk about your end-of-life wishes, but would you mind listening to mine?

    And, usually, what happens is that once they hear you being vulnerable and talking about the things that you would want or the things that you wouldn't want, it kind of opens them up to also start having that dialogue.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kimberly and Wayne Reese Jr. say they know their dad wouldn't want a lot of fuss, and they did hold a small gathering, under new funeral rules.

  • Wayne Reese Jr.:

    If it were just a regular funeral, that church would have been packed three times over.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The family is already looking towards a new day, and making plans for that moment.

  • Kimberly Reese:

    When we — the city does open up, we will have a memorial to celebrate his legacy, just in a different way, in a different time. He will get his — he will get his due.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A chance to gather in grief and celebration for the moment on hold.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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