‘The Other Half of My Soul’: Widows of Covid-19 Bond Over Sudden Loss
CHICAGO — One Friday evening, Sandra McGowan-Watts, a 46-year-old doctor from suburban Chicago, opened her laptop, stifled her nerves and told strangers on a Zoom call what had happened to her husband, Steven.
“He died by himself,” said Dr. McGowan-Watts, who joined the call after an invitation on a Facebook support group for widowed Black women. “Not being able to see him, being able to touch him, all of those things. The grief is kind of complicated.”
The women listening understood instantly. They were all widows of Covid-19.
For nearly two hours that summer night, their stories tumbled out, tales of sickness and death, single parenting and unwanted solitude, harrowing phone calls and truncated goodbyes.
More than 340,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the United States. Men have died of the disease in larger numbers than women, a gender disparity that some researchers have suggested could be partly attributed to men’s generally poorer health. That has left untold thousands of spouses suddenly widowed by the virus.
Women have witnessed the pandemic from a miserably close angle. They have been left behind with family responsibilities, financial burdens, worries about their children’s trauma and their own crushing loss and guilt. Many nursed their partners at home until they were so ill they had to be hospitalized; there, they often died with little warning.
Coronavirus widows, as well as many widowers, are spread out across the country, young and old, in big cities in California and small towns in Utah.
In more than a dozen interviews, women told of feeling stunned by the swiftness of the experience, even months after their husbands’ deaths.
“It’s very traumatic because of the unexpectedness of it,” said Jennifer Law, whose husband, Matthew, died of the coronavirus in Texas in November, years after serving in the Army in Iraq. “He made it back from two deployments, two separate, dangerous deployments. He came home and this is what killed him.”
Some feel unacknowledged, struggling to manage the aftermath of their partners’ deaths amid an unending health crisis.
“It was really difficult for me because I felt like, man, I’m all alone,” said Pamela Addison, 37, a teacher in Waldwick, N.J. Her husband, Martin, a speech pathologist who worked in a hospital, died of the virus in April. “If Covid wasn’t here, all of our husbands would still be here.”
Ms. Addison eventually sought out other Covid-19 widows to talk to, and other women have managed to find each other by joining Facebook bereavement groups, which are also open to men. They have forged ties similar to those found among other clusters of women whose husbands died unexpectedly and prematurely, including military spouses or widows of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The women on the Zoom call in July who live in the Chicago area have since become friends who meet for dinner and check in daily with quick texts.
Widows of the coronavirus recounted a painful set of commonalities: the experience of frantically taking care of their husbands when they fell ill, worrying about when to take them to a hospital and feeling haunted by the images of their partners dying without loved ones beside them.
“The generation that I’m from, we took care of our husbands — that’s how we were raised,” said Mary Smith, of Pekin, Ill., who lost her 64-year-old husband, Mike, to the virus. “That was our job, to be their cheerleader. They’re used to having that, and all of a sudden you’re not there.”
After her husband died, she scrolled through his phone and found the lonely pictures he had snapped from his hospital bed. His food, in a cardboard container. The oxygen machines. A selfie as he wore breathing equipment.
“It was so stark,” Ms. Smith said. “He was in there by himself so much of the time.”
Jennifer Kay Jensen, who lives in Delray Beach, Fla., has been tormented by the notion that her presence in the hospital — barred to prevent further transmission — could have helped her husband recover. Her husband, Peter, a 56-year-old real estate broker, died of the virus in August.
“The guilt, it eats me up every day,” she said. “I think it could have made a difference, if I was there seeing him, to soothe him or scratch his arm or kiss his head.”
In St. George, Utah, Donna Heintz has been marooned, physically and emotionally, since her 78-year-old husband, Fred, died in October. Her neighbor across the street calls her to check in, or waves if they are outside at the same moment. But the isolation of widowhood is raw and unending.
“I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is try to get out of bed quietly so I don’t wake him,” she said, choking back sobs. “Then I look to see if he’s there, and he’s gone.”
Her husband, an Army veteran and longtime police officer, was the cook in their house, preparing meals that they would share on TV trays in the living room, watching their favorite shows and making each other laugh. Now Ms. Heintz barely wants to eat a thing, and cannot shake the feeling that her husband is still there.
“Sometimes at night I look in the kitchen and wonder what he’s fixing for supper,” she said.
A report published in May by the Global Fund for Widows, a nonprofit organization based in New York, called the coronavirus a “widow-making machine,” an outbreak that could create “unprecedented numbers of widows across the developing world.”
By late December, at least 163,000 men had died from the virus in the United States, compared with at least 138,000 women, according to federal data.
Sarah S. Richardson, a historian at Harvard who directs its GenderSci Lab, said men have died of the coronavirus in greater numbers in part because of its disproportionate effect on Black men, and by a surge in deaths of men early in the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, she added, women were more likely to be widowed than men.
The Facebook group for Black women who have been widowed has seen a tragic influx of new members this year.
Sabra Robinson, its creator, became a widow in 2012 after her husband died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Spurred by that experience, and her dissatisfaction in traditional grief support groups, she started her own, with a heavy focus on empowerment and encouragement for Black women.
“When Covid hit, oh my goodness, the group was receiving so many requests from widows who lost their husbands due to Covid,” said Ms. Robinson, a project manager from Charlotte, N.C. “They are experiencing more complicated grief than I would say the average widow that posts in the group. How in the world can they heal as long as Covid is out there?”
For younger widows of Covid-19, the task of raising small children alone has been one of the most daunting tests of the pandemic.
After her husband died in April, Diana Ordonez sold her house in New Jersey to downsize and move closer to friends, family and their church. Ms. Ordonez described her husband, Juan, as a warm, funny and cheerful man who was “the other half of my soul.”
Ms. Ordonez said she had been propelled forward by a desire to be a good example for their 5-year-old daughter, Mia, to show her that she should live fully, as Juan did.
“This whole experience is so depleting and so draining,” Ms. Ordonez said. “You have to lead your kid by example. You want them to be happy, and you’re showing them how to behave.”
Some women’s grief has been laced with anger.
Mara Vaughan, of Prosper, Texas, lost her husband, Bryan, to the coronavirus in April, after he quite likely contracted it on a business trip. Ms. Vaughan, who has three children, has connected with other widows online and read about their struggles, financial and emotional.
She pointed to President Trump and his downplaying of the coronavirus crisis, especially early on, when her husband became sick. It is difficult to see people in her community still shunning masks and ignoring advice on safety and social distancing.
“Imagine the pandemic and losing someone to it and then doing it alone,” Ms. Vaughan said. “I will never have peace and closure on the death of my husband. It should never have happened.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.