Molly Keating offers counseling for a living, but after her father died in the pandemic in January, she found herself opening up not to another therapist but to strangers on Reddit.
Keating’s friends brought her food and care packages. But when she started to share her grief, it was almost too much for her friends to handle.
“People really just wanted me to say, “‘I’m going to be okay, thanks for reaching out,’” said Keating, 32, who lives in New Jersey with her husband.
Still, she said, “I wanted to get all of this off my chest somehow.” That’s when she thought of Reddit, a social-media platform she had never actively used but knew about because her husband, a Philadelphia 76ers fan, contributes to sports subreddits.
Keating quickly found the r/COVIDgrief subreddit, a subgroup that had started in December and now has over 400 members.
“Welcome to the club you hate being a part of. If you’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19, this is the place for you to share your story, vent, and seek support,” the description of the subreddit group reads.
Each post in the subgroup can be tagged with a “flair,” such as “Anticipatory Grief,” “Dad loss,” “Mom loss,” “In Memory,” and “Advice.”
Keating started looking for yellow “Dad loss” tags, reading post after post by people sharing experiences of losing a parent to COVID-19.
As she read, Keating felt the urge to share her own story. She made a five-paragraph post in the group titled “My heart is broken,” and tagged it with the same yellow tag.
“The day before yesterday my mother, siblings, and I had to say goodbye to my father via a zoom session with the ICU pastor. He passed from complications with COVID and pneumonia. My dad was my everything….” her post began.
Last Christmas Eve, her father, Gary, let an unmasked neighbor into the family home in Robbinsville, NJ, for a chat. The next day, the neighbor called to say he had tested positive for COVID-19. Gary began to show symptoms, and within days he was admitted to the hospital.
His condition deteriorated quickly, and family members were not allowed in the ICU room with him. A few days later, the hospital called to set up a goodbye call via Zoom with a pastor.
Keating, along with her mother and siblings, attended the call and together decided to have the hospital staff stop treatment.
Through a camera, they saw an ICU nurse remove the intubation machine.
“I watched her gently squeeze his hand and brush his hair aside. It was a truly loving gesture,” said Keating. “It was as if she was trying to channel our love and provide the physical comfort that we could not.”
As of April, over 550,000 people in the United States have died due to COVID-19. People over age 75 make up 60 percent of the deaths, and many died without loved ones by their sides.
“You’re just alone there to grieve by yourself,” said Keating.
During the two weeks that her father was hospitalized, Keating sent him text messages because she could not be with him in person.
“Hey Dad. I know it’s late, but I can’t sleep. I hope this doesn’t wake you up. I just want you to know how much I love you, and how much we all love you..I’ll give you a call tomorrow to check in. Sleep well.,” read her message early on Jan. 7.
She never got any responses. Her father’s condition had deteriorated to the point where the doctors thought he might be brain dead.
“I know you won’t see this but I need you to know that you are and always have been my rock. A huge part of me feels like i’m shutting down with you. I am so happy that you were able to be at my wedding…you are my everything. I love you, I love you, I love you.” her final text read at 5:18p.m. on Jan. 20.
Two days later, her father died alone in the hospital.
Keating considers herself a private person and does not visit Facebook or Twitter. She does have an Instagram account which she occasionally uses, and the last picture she had posted had shown her parents on their 50th anniversary.
Making a Reddit post was “so out of character for me,” she said, but it allowed her to process her grief.
“People have such similar experiences, and they were so willing to open up and talk about the details of it,” said Keating.
As much as her feelings were validated after she joined the subreddit, she also felt overwhelmed.
“I thought, ‘Look at all these people hurting who are screaming into this abyss,’” said Keating.
Keating said she didn’t really care if anyone read her post. “It just felt good putting it out there, not having to see the discomfort on someone’s face as I’m telling them the story.”
To her surprise, three users immediately responded to her post, all sharing similar experiences of loss.
A user with the account name BaconCheeseVegan43, wrote, “Hugs, stranger. I was with my dad when he died of COVID in Nov. The loss is rough and grief shows up with a different mask everyday. Talk about your loss, lean on those you love. Thoughts as you begin this journey🖤.”
After reading these messages, Keating felt less alone.
“They were exactly what I needed,” she said.
Keating, who has a master’s degree in social work and works as a full-time therapist, said her father’s death has given her new perspectives professionally.
“I’ve processed grief with many clients before, but I suppose I never actually understood what all of it meant until now,” said Keating.
In a virtual forum in April 2020, Dr. Katherine Shear called grief “the form that love takes when someone we love dies.”
At the event, “Loss and Grief During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Shear recommended that people who are grieving strengthen their existing relationships.
“We don’t grieve well alone, and we need to do what we can to stay socially connected,” said Shear, a psychiatry professor who is founding director of The Center for Complicated Grief at the Columbia University School of Social Work.
For those who want to support the bereaved, Shear recommends being present and listening – but not giving a lot of advice. “It can seem counterintuitive, but invite them to tell you the story of what happened,” said Shear.
“It’s really important for a helper to be optimally sensitive, which is very difficult to do well in digital ways,” said Shear.
As a therapist, Keating particularly enjoys helping adolescents find creative ways for expression, and she often asks clients to write difficult letters or journal entries that might help bring them some closure to a relationship or situation. Afterwards, they can burn the documents, throw them away, turn them into paper airplanes – whatever feels most comfortable.
She believes that her work influenced her to make her Reddit post.
“I think that was what I was going for, except I liked that my pain was being sent out there to people who I knew would understand it,” she said.