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Reporters share their own stories from America’s silent epidemic of grief

Reporters share their own stories from America’s silent epidemic of grief

Picture of Tracie Potts
(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

I report almost daily on COVID-19 deaths. On February 22, President Biden announced that the U.S. had hit a new milestone: 500,071 lives lost. I choked up. It was hard to say that number live on TV. Five days earlier my uncle died after a monthlong battle with respiratory failure complicated by COVID-19. In my mind, he was the one. Suddenly the reports I’d been delivering for months felt so personal. My heart was heavy. My uncle had become one of the statistics I talk about every day. 

There’s a silent epidemic of grief sweeping across America, and journalists who report on coronavirus feel it just like everyone else. While we’re busy reporting on this deadly virus, many of us have watched COVID-19 attack our families — and our own bodies. 

Oakland, California news anchor Dave Clark reported on the pandemic as his brother was dying 2,800 miles away.

“Every time I’m on TV, delivering the news about COVID, and the pain and suffering of millions of families, my mind will flashback to how my own family couldn’t, because of the pandemic, touch Will, hug him, or be with him in intensive care as he struggled to breathe, and his body failed him, over and over again,” he posted on Facebook. “We were helpless to do anything for him or encourage him: tell him ‘We’re here. You’re NOT alone.’ But, he DID die, alone...and that image will always be in my mind. Now, I know how that feels.” It’s NOT just another news story.”

Washington, D.C. reporter Adam Longo says family gatherings for his mother’s funeral turned into “superspreader events.” Relatives traveled from out of state to pay their respects. Despite their best efforts to be careful, Longo says 17 family members were infected. He writes that while people wore masks during the service, they let their guard down while socializing.

“Despite my better judgment, I hugged. I shook hands. I felt more at ease going with the flow than being perceived as socially awkward and distant from my family and assembled friends,” he said. “These gatherings were different from the funeral service and mass in that there was very little mask wearing among the attendees. Mask-less, face-to-face conversations were happening all over the place. My children had to be constantly and sternly reminded to keep their masks on while playing with their cousins.”

Longo’s immediate family didn’t test positive, but he takes responsibility for the spread. “We are all to blame for casting aside and ignoring the proven advice of medical experts,” he writes.  

Journalists know how to stay safe. We report on mask-wearing, social distancing and other public health measures every day. Yet even when we take every precaution, COVID-19 can slip in the back door. 

North Carolina news anchor Molly Grantham thought her family was following all the rules, but they all tested positive. Grantham’s case was complicated with pneumonia — and all at the worst possible time: while nursing a newborn at home. 

“We were all here kissing on the baby and we all got it,” Grantham told CNN

Everyone in the house – her husband and their 5- and 9-year-old children – became infected. Their newborn was presumed positive. 

“It was scary,” Grantham said. “Some nights, watching a newborn breathe, watching his rib cage rise and fall. I was like, what am I looking for? Is that breath different from that breath?”

Eventually the family recovered. 

Frequent testing can also be stressful. Because we travel and work in the field in close proximity to each other, journalists can face higher risks than the general public. Some media companies, like mine, test employees regularly. I took two required tests to cover the Biden inauguration. Standing in line to be swabbed, one co-worker told me he’d been tested 21 times, typically every Friday at work. 

There’s a constant underlying current of anxiety while awaiting results and working together. One day I walked into the office with a coworker who left minutes later due to a positive test.  Immediately I wondered: Was I too close when we spoke? Did we touch the same door handle? 

Journalists report about COVID not only to our audience, but to our personal networks. Friends and family rely on us for the latest information. When not at work we find ourselves policing our social media feeds, correcting misinformation and educating our friends about the virus and vaccines. 

Journalists aren’t alone dealing with the emotional scars of this virus. Certainly health care workers are feeling it — those on the front lines, and those who deal with the fallout. Bereavement care specialists in the U.K. and Ireland report massive increases in people seeking support, in person and remotely. A survey of these health professionals found that calls and video conferences soared 90% in a month as the virus surged last fall and people sought help making funeral arrangements and dealing with the grief of relatives dying alone. Mental health specialists described remote support as “draining.” They worry about the people they aren’t reaching electronically. One lamented: “There may be a silent epidemic of grief that we have not yet picked up on.”

Children are also part of this epidemic. There’s limited data on how many children have lost a parent during the pandemic, but experts agree that losing a caretaker to COVID-19 can cause further losses for children, such as food insecurity. Worrying about where to get a meal creates an added level of stress and grief for the youngest mourners. 

Less tragic but equally pervasive: our feelings of loss over normal life and routine. Missing connections with family and friends. Not seeing coworkers for months on end. Limiting trips to the grocery store. Not seeing that same smiling face every morning on the bus or at the coffee shop.  The Mayo Clinic concludes that “the pandemic has had a major psychological impact, causing people to lose a sense of safety, predictability, control, freedom and security.”

It’s certainly had a psychological impact on me and my family. It’s heartbreaking to see my children’s panicked reaction every time my husband and I call them to talk: “Oh no, did someone else die?” As for my work as a journalist, losing my uncle and other friends has made me more sensitive to how I report on COVID-19. I’ve made a greater effort to include real voices in my stories whenever possible. The loved ones left behind. 

People like me. 

**

The CDC offers resources and advice for adults and children who have lost a loved one, or simply feel normal life slipping away day by day. They aim to provide ways to identify severe cases needing intervention, and for the rest of us, ways to cope.

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