Worn out, isolated and sad — grief of all kinds mounts for Coloradans a year into pandemic

A year ago, San Twin’s life sang with promise.

She was expecting her first child, living in her own place with her husband not too far from her parents, who’d bought a house in Aurora and chased the American Dream after arriving in the United States as refugees more than a decade earlier.

But during the pandemic, Twin’s life cracked, broke and contracted, reforming into something harder, smaller and less hopeful. Sometimes she can’t breathe, and she’s not always sure if the pain in her chest is grief or the lingering grasp of the coronavirus.

ONE YEAR OF COVID

Coloradans have faced layer upon layer of grief since the start of the pandemic, at an unprecedented intensity and without access to many of the traditional methods of coping. Small griefs, like missing a vacation or a graduation, are mixed in with life-shaking events, like the death of a loved one or a lost job.

Colorado confirmed the state’s first death due to COVID-19 on March 13, 2020, and in the year since, more than 6,000 lives have been cut short by the virus. A cascade of loss spilled across the state, hitting Black and Hispanic families — disproportionately affected by the coronavirus — particularly hard.

The stress and uncertainty of the last year tested people’s resilience and left many just plain worn out.

“As new grief comes, they’re often feeling overwhelmed, unable to fully respond emotionally because they’re so exhausted,” said Amy Wachholtz, director of clinical health psychology at University of Colorado Denver. “Even to the point where I’ve heard from some patients, ‘I feel like I should cry but I don’t have anything left.’”

For Twin, the problems started early in the pandemic. She got sick with COVID-19 in March 2020, while she was pregnant, and had to undergo an emergency cesarean section. Her mother got sick, too, and died, and her grief-filled father struggled without his wife.

“He cut off everyone. He’s not talking to anyone anymore. He’s working seven days a week, not eating, not sleeping properly,” Twin said.

She, her husband and their son moved back into her parents’ home two months ago. Now, Twin cooks for her father, cares for the house and for her son, and works two days a week at a grocery store. Their home country, Myanmar, is undergoing a coup, and her family members there are in harm’s way, in and out of contact but calling when they can.

A bright future is harder to imagine now, Twin said in February, weary.

“I have to say, to be honest, I don’t know what is going to happen next,” she said. “I am such an unlucky person.”

Avenues to express grief

Pandemic grief is not confined only to those who got sick or experienced a loved one’s death, Wachholtz said, it’s also there in the steady drip of disappointment, the missed milestones and lost friendships, the frustration and isolation that’s hit everyone to some degree since authorities announced the first cases of the coronavirus in Colorado on March 5, 2020.

Back then, the state locked down and while it was stressful, there was still a sense that it would be over soon and life would return to normal, Wachholtz said.

“And then that became, ‘Well maybe not yet,’” she said, “so I think over the long haul, a lot of those grief and daily stressors have started building, and that’s made it harder and harder for people to deal with new grief when it comes.”

Some people feel guilty for grieving over a lost vacation, a missed graduation or opportunity — thinking, perhaps, that others have it much worse — but those griefs are valid, Wachholtz said, and should be acknowledged and dealt with.

The question is how to deal with it. Many of the traditional avenues for grieving, from funerals to memorials to hugging a friend are off-limits during the pandemic, and for some, not having access to those rituals has delayed the grieving experience and stalled important closure.

When prominent Wray community member Robert “Bob” Hansen, 92, died from complications after surgery on March 26, 2020, his family decided to put off the funeral until they could invite the community to join in the remembrance, said his grandson, Kyle Hansen.

“He loved not just his family but his community,” he said. “He’d bend over backwards to do stuff for the community. He loved giving back, helping and seeing the community develop as a whole. It was an important part of his life and so it was an important part of us.”

When he died, the family imagined a month or two delay for the funeral, perhaps having a service during the spring. That turned into summer, then fall. They still haven’t held the funeral — a longer delay than anyone expected.

“It’s been hard,” Hansen said. “In my personal case, I’ve had four other grandparents pass away, and with all of them you were able to have that sense of closure with the funeral. We haven’t really been able to process that with Grandpa.”

In the absence of that kind of communal mourning, there are other ways to process grief that can help people cope, Wachholtz said, like exercising, taking a break from work or watching a dumb movie and laughing about it. What helps will be different for each person, she said, but it’s important to take those steps.

Remembering what we’ve lost

With most large-scale public events forbidden during the pandemic, there have been fewer mass memorials for the more than 530,000 people who have died from the virus in this country than in the past.

Some in Denver sought to fill that gap by creating such memorials. Artists Stella Yu and Samy Lee pasted the photos of people who died from coronavirus on a wall outside RedLine Contemporary Art Center on Arapahoe Street in Denver, gluing the portraits to the surface with a big bristled brush and temporary wheat paste.

“Wall pasting is a process that is very cathartic,” Lee said. “You’re posting this picture next to someone. With these photos, all these people are together. They’re not isolated. And you kind of rub it to the wall, rub over their faces. When I did it, I felt really honored.”

The exhibit was up between September and November, and anyone could come and add a picture of their loved one, she said.

“We were so isolated, we needed to see faces, we needed a public space where people could come and post these images,” she said.

A family in Greenwood Village created a more permanent memorial in the digital world — Megan Shoflick and her daughter, Samantha Shoflick, launched Covituary, an online memorial site for victims of COVID, in January.

“During the original quarantine, my mom and I would go on walks and we were discussing that it was so sad how so many people were passing away from such a scary virus,” Samantha, 17, said. “We talked about how people weren’t able to properly memorialize someone who had passed away. That’s how the idea was born.”

The website lets anyone create a profile — a picture, obituary and other information — for coronavirus victims and post that profile publicly for free. The Shoflicks won’t make any money off the site, they said, and are working to get the word out about it. They intend the website to be permanent.

Maria Rita Castrogiovanni, who lives in New York, decided to memorialize her father on Covituary after she learned about the site from a relative, she said, in part because she doesn’t want his life to get lost in the growing death toll.

“I just feel like I need to spread the word about how good a man he was,” she said of her father, Calogero Castrogiovanni, 58, who died in April 2020. “These are real people. It’s not just a number. This is a man who had a family and friends.”

She paused, and cried.

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