After Losing Loved Ones To COVID-19, Families Grapple With Grief And The Holiday Season
More than 20,000 lives have been lost in Florida due to COVID-19. But those numbers aren’t just statistics. They represent mothers, fathers, siblings, friends. People.
WLRN intern Alejandra Marquez Janse first started talking to the loved ones of some of the victims on COVID-19 over the summer for our news partner the Miami Herald. She recently checked in with them again to ask them how they’ve been doing:
DeAntuan Fields used to play for different gospel groups in Broward County. Playing the bass guitar was his passion.
He lived in Pompano Beach. He was 35 years old and he had three children. His family says he constantly brought them joy through his music and laugh.
He suffered from kidney failure several years ago and was on a waitlist to receive a transplant. He didn’t get enough time: He died in April from complications with chronic kidney disease and COVID-19.
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Eight months later, his mom, Genice Fields, is trying to learn how to live without her son.
“I usually have my granddaughter, sometimes my grandson, on the weekends. And, when she says something about her dad, that kind of gets me sometimes,” Fields said. “Or she would look at me and say, ‘Why are you so sad?’ She says, ‘Are you thinking about my daddy?’ So I say, ‘Yeah, I'm thinking about your dad.’”
Fields' holiday season looks different this year, as it does for so many families across the country due to the pandemic. Out of precaution, her family opted for small get-togethers to celebrate. She says their gatherings can get up to 40 people.
There’s also the lingering thought of those who aren’t on the gift lists this year. Fields also lost her father to COVID-19 this spring — 11 days before her son. She says what keeps her going is her religion and family.
“I read my Bible, that helps me, and I spend a lot of time with my mom and my sister. So, that helps a lot, to have close family around that understands because we all went through something back then. So, having them there really helps; it helps the day go by quicker and easier,” she said.
The holidays are hard for people who are grieving. And this year, so many people are grieving.
'I'm Still Here, I Love You'
Jessica Bonilla lost one of her brothers to COVID-19 in July. His name was Jose Bonilla and he was 52 years old.
Born in Nicaragua, Jose Bonilla moved to Florida with his family when he was a teenager and he lived in South Miami. His birthday was Nov. 28, two days after Thanksgiving. Instead of having the usual Thanksgiving and birthday dinner for him, his family visited his grave that day with flowers, balloons, and shirts with his name printed on them.
“We sort of did like a vigil for him, and sang 'Happy Birthday,'” Jessica Bonilla said. “It was very emotional just to sing 'Happy Birthday,' and to talk to him.”
Dr. Madeleine Reyes, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Community Health of South Florida, Inc., encourages families to do activities like this while they grieve; especially around the holidays. She says some of her clients did masses for their loved ones.
“That has actually helped improve the way they're feeling, and it gives them a sense of, ‘I'm still here, I love you and I still remember you, and this is for you,'” Reyes said.
She also stresses the importance of letting people grieve as they need.
“You have to let the person do what they need to do and process all those emotions. If it's crying, if it's looking at pictures, if it's cooking their favorite meal, they have to go through that process because if you do not go through that process, it just makes it so much harder, and it just takes so much longer to heal,” Reyes said.
Jessica Bonilla says that she and her family try to help each other get through their loss. They try to grieve and keep going.
They’re especially worried about her mom.
“She stays at home a lot,” Jessica Bonilla said. “And, because he passed away at home, I feel that it's harder for her because she feels like he's there. He's there all the time and, at moments, she wants to move out of there. But, sometimes she's like, ‘I don't want to move out because then I feel like I'm leaving him behind.’”
She says her brother was a giving man who would buy from any street vendor he saw, constantly bought flowers for her and her mom, and treated well the employees of the upholstery shop he owned.
He also had a 7-year-old daughter named Brenyi. For Christmas, Jessica’s children decided they don’t want any gifts. They asked their relatives to give gifts or money for their cousin Brenyi instead.
“We're getting a Christmas tree, but we are not gonna have any presents under the tree,” she said. “They're OK with that. As a matter of fact, it was their idea. So everything is going to go to my niece, to Brenyi. My mom and myself, we're going to go out there and do some shopping and whatever money is left over, then we'll go ahead and give it to her mom."
'We Have To Do The Best We Can'
Nicole Tomlin is also trying to make the holidays bright for her 10-year-old daughter at the same time that she grieves. She lost her mom, Chandra Haniff, in April.
“I can't be selfish and think, 'Oh, I'm hurting, forget her.' So I have to push past what I'm feeling to at least make her holidays happy, because she's just now starting to talk about my mom passing; missing her and all that,” Tomlin said. “I don't want her not to keep talking to us. So we have to do the best we can to encourage her to keep talking and, you know, to make the holidays as bright as possible for her sake.”
Haniff was born in Trinidad and lived in Miami. Her family says she was a feisty grandmother and would welcome anyone into her home with a plate of food.
These families are trying to move forward while there are more casualties of the virus each day. They say one thing gives them some hope: the vaccines are rolling out.
"I hope everything turns out good and I hope, you know, we can save some more lives," Fields said.
WLRN is working to memorialize those we’ve lost to COVID-19. Do you have a loved one you want to remember? Please consider sharing their stories with us.