Sitting at home last summer, coughing and aching all over, Angela Skillings heard her phone ring. Her heart dropped when she saw the caller ID.
“Are you sitting down? Are you alone?” the caller asked.
Skillings was sitting down.
Even though she knew this call was coming, Skillings was not ready to hear that her co-worker had died.
An elementary school teacher, Skillings was teaching remotely from the school building in the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District in Gila County, Arizona. To alleviate the loneliness of having an empty classroom, she shared a room with two other educators, Jena Martinez and Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd.
The three women diligently cleaned the space, wore face masks and stayed more than six feet apart at all times. Nevertheless, on June 14, Byrd tested positive for coronavirus. The next day, Skillings and Martinez got tested: Both were positive.
Byrd died on June 26, less than two weeks after being put on a ventilator.
Skillings spent a month dealing with her own severe symptoms — cough, fever and body aches, some of which linger to this day. During a visit to her doctor, he asked if she’d taken the time to grieve for her colleague. She hadn’t, because Byrd’s death wasn’t yet real to her. Her doctor suggested finding an online group.
She followed his advice, soon joining the Facebook group, “Support for Lives Lost and Those Affected by COVID 19.” She “just laid it all out” in a post, searching for relief in the words of others, she said. She got immediate comfort from the prayers and condolences offered. Teachers in the group reached out, relaying their fears and thanking her for her story.
“Seeing that I wasn’t the only one going through the issues I was going through, of not being able to get the closure I needed, it really helped,” said Skillings. “Now I can help others.” Over 20,500 people have joined the group since its launch in April.
As of January 24, the United States has recorded 25.3 million cases of COVID-19 and 421,000 deaths. But the virus does not allow for normal grieving. The “Funeral Guidance for Individuals and Families,” page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website urges people to help lower the risk of spreading coronavirus when a family member dies from the disease. The advice discourages gathering in groups and suggests instead that people grieve via phone or video chat, create virtual memory books and coordinate later dates to honor loved ones.
It is this isolation that has driven people to look for comfort online. “Support for Lives Lost,” is one of more than 100 COVID-related support groups on Facebook. The groups range from local communities to world-wide support groups. Some focus on remembering those who pass, others on those who are ill but recovering, others on the isolation that people are feeling.
The group Skillings joined has averaged 50 posts per day since the beginning of November. Families and friends of COVID-19 victims ask for emotional support or prayers or just share their stories. Sometimes, people who had COVID-19 post their own survival stories. Many describe leaving the hospital with a new sense of hope.
The group was launched by Laura Kelly, who also moderates it. She lost her cousin early in the pandemic and started the Facebook group two days later to honor him. Since April, Kelly has posted news updates and other grief support resources and expresses her condolences when someone has died.
One person who has found solace in the group is Lara Mulawka, 53, who lost her father on Oct. 31. Before the pandemic, Richard J. Mulawka, 81 was an avid golfer who refused to use a cart and spent his younger years playing tennis. Standing “6 feet, 4 inches and three-quarters,” his daughter said, he was a powerful and active man who worked as an accountant in Michigan. Shortly before her father died, a nurse at the local Detroit hospital allowed Mulawka one short visit in his room. During her allotted 10 minutes, Mulawka reassured her father that “dying is just another stage on the journey we’re on,” she said.
Mulawka joined the Facebook group soon after her father’s death. She wanted to read other people’s stories, “to just put a face to all these numbers,” she said. She’s found comfort there because no one near to her has lost a close family member to COVID-19.
In the group, Mulawka shared that since her final visit, the John Denver song, “Sunshine on My Shoulders” plays in her head when she thinks of her father though she never heard him mention it.
It turns out, many others in the group gravitated to this song as well.
Mulawka is unsure how long she’ll stay in the group, but for now she wants to be there for others sending her condolences and support.
Margie Prichard, 66, joined the Facebook group to find solace after her own experience with illness and loss. On Oct. 1, she tested positive for COVID-19; two days later, her husband Donald Prichard’s results came back positive as well. He was 68.
Both stayed home, quarantining and keeping track of their oxygen levels. For more than a week, they both felt fine. Then on Friday, Oct. 11, Donald’s oxygen levels dropped to 70 percent, and he was rushed to the hospital.
He died there three weeks later.
“I joined this group because it’s a very unique experience to lose somebody like this,” said Prichard. “I think we all feel like we’re lost.”
Speaking in an interview only days after her husband’s memorial, Prichard’s voice broke as she described her reasons for joining the Facebook group. She wanted to share her story and also to let others know that signing her husband up for palliative care allowed her to be with him during his last weeks. “It’s hard enough losing someone you love but not being able to say goodbye is horrific,” she said. She received over 150 comments of support and condolences.
“I’m so sorry for your heartbreaking and tragic loss. We grieve with you.”
“Thanks for sharing about the palliative care team.”
“Sending you what little strength I have in me to get thru these next days and months.”
“May God give your heart peace and comfort.”
Since her initial Facebook post, Prichard has posted only once more — to share her experience donating convalescent plasma in her husband’s honor, plasma that she hoped would be therapeutic for others with COVID-19. Although she shares little, Prichard said she reads and reacts to as many stories as she can because she wants those who are grieving to “know that people care about them.”
Both Skillings and Mulawka, like many members of the Facebook group, are postponing celebrations of life until later when they can properly honor their loved ones. For now, many in the group remember their lost ones through stories, connecting with others who share this experience.
“I’ve made friends,” said Skillings. “I’ve had people that ended up calling me and now we talk once a week or we’re sending text messages, checking in on each other, all just because of this group.”
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.