The last time that LaNece Andreason talked to her husband, Todd, it was at the doors of Lone Peak Hospital. She waved goodbye as he was wheeled off by staff, and a week later he died from COVID-19.
Hilary Moody lost her mother-in-law to the virus a month after that. She got to talk to her on the phone, though Carol Moody was too sick at that point to say much. And members of the Hatfield family had their final moments with their 83-year-old patriarch, Gary, in a FaceTime call. The Utah nursing home wouldn’t let his kids and grandkids inside to see him for fear of spreading the disease.
Those difficult last interactions are not unusual with the coronavirus. With a disease that’s so contagious, most families have had to say goodbye to loved ones from a distance. But “it makes it much more traumatic to process” the loss, says Kathie Supiano, a social worker at the University of Utah.
Worried about how individuals — like the Hatfields or Andreason and her kids — are grieving under the unusual circumstances, Supiano has now started new support groups for families in the state who have had someone die from COVID-19.
The hope is to give them a place to find solace with others who have been through it, because they weren’t able to find comfort in traditional and typical ways. There are no final hugs or holding hands as a loved one passes. Even funerals are different, with far fewer attendees.
“All of those natural comforts are disrupted,” Supiano said Tuesday during a virtual news conference. “But a support group has its own power to heal. When you’re surrounded by people who share your experience, that’s profoundly validating and normalizing and affirming.”
Supiano specializes in palliative care and responding to grief, and she directs the U.'s Caring Connections program that helps people cope with loss. That’s where the new COVID-specific support groups will be based — but they will be open and free to anyone in the state who’s struggling with losing someone to the virus.
In Utah, as of Tuesday, that includes the relatives of the 436 individuals here who have died from COVID-19.
The first support group will begin meeting next week, and people can enroll by calling Caring Connections at 801-585-9522. The meetings are private, Supiano said, and members will be sent a secure Zoom link to join.
Each group will be limited to about eight people to allow everyone time to talk and connect. The U. will form more groups with additional social workers based on demand. And the individuals will meet online once a week on Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. The hope is to move those to in-person gatherings when it’s safer.
Supiano said while it’s hard to lose anyone, the specific circumstances with the virus make it “a much more challenging grief.” Not getting the proper closure by saying goodbye in person can make moving forward harder.
“That compounds their grief,” she said.
Mario Vazquez, who is running a support group specifically for Latinos and families of color — which have been hit the hardest in Utah by the virus — said people who lose a loved one to COVID-19 often feel guilty. That’s often over not being able to care for a sick family member, he said.
Minority families, in particular, he said, may also have additional cultural expectations. Pacific Islanders, for instance, often believe strongly in being close to people and may feel an additional burden without being able to do so because of social distancing. Immigrants, too, Vazquez said, are unlikely to be able to fly out of the country if a loved one dies elsewhere.
And just finding someone to communicate with, in general, who speaks the same language can be a hurdle to getting help processing the emotions around loss.
“People can share their feelings, their experiences with us,” Vazquez said. “They don’t have to feel alone.”
His support groups started in July, and people can sign up any time by texting the Multicultural Counseling Center at 801-915-0359.
In addition, both Caring Connections and the Multicultural Counseling Center at the U. will offer separate support groups for people who have survived COVID-19 to discuss their lingering symptoms with others. Those individuals are often referred to as “long-haulers.” Supiano said they experience things like continuing heart issues and fatigue, as well as depression and anxiety.
Heather Smith, another social worker who’s leading that effort, said the meetings start this Tuesday.Interested individuals can sign up on an ongoing basis. The support groups are funded by the Utah Department of Health and will continue as long as there’s interest.
“We’re seeing people who have a lot of issues with isolation,” Smith said. “We want to make sure that people know that other people can relate to them.”
That connection is the point with both of the types of support groups — for those recovering from the disease or trying to recover from losing someone to it.