Whitney Parker spent her first Mother's Day as a single mom describing the pain of losing a spouse to COVID-19.
While situating her toddler son with his supper, the 31-year-old mother of two grabbed an iced coffee and fired up her laptop for an online meeting with others who have been widowed by the coronavirus — a group of "forever friends," she says, that has changed her life.
Parker spoke of the approaching anniversary of her husband's death, a loss that initiated waves of grief that continue to buffet her family's Maple Grove home. The sorrow endures, she said, but there's also sober consolation in knowing that those "firsts that took my breath away" — the first birthdays and holidays that Leslie Parker missed, his daughter's first day of fourth grade and his son's first words — are all behind her now.
"I don't ever say 'move on,' because how can you move on?" she said. "But moving forward — I would love to move forward and get my feet grounded in my new role and my new life as a widow."
For Parker and the relatively small group of men and women under 50 who have lost spouses to the virus, finding peers in a pandemic that has disproportionately brought death to the elderly can be difficult. Yet with the help of an online support group that regularly grapples with the physical, emotional and financial consequences of sudden loss, young widows and widowers are gradually finding ways to forge a sense of community.
"It's so important to feel like you're not alone," said Pamela Addison, a 37-year-old New Jersey woman who founded the online group in November after struggling for months with the death of her husband. "I remember what a lonely place that was."
Death records suggest that roughly one-third of the more than 7,400 Minnesotans who have died from COVID-19 were married at the time of death. Leslie Parker was one of just 56 victims in that group younger than 50, according to a Star Tribune review.
The records don't say how many left behind children, but researchers estimate that across the country, about 40,000 kids 17 and younger lost parents during the pandemic's first year.
"I don't think the U.S. has really faced this kind of mass bereavement before, at least in modern times," said Rachel Kidman, a social epidemiologist at Stony Brook University in New York.
Surviving spouses can face significant financial challenges as families try getting by on just a fraction of their previous income, said Dr. Toni Miles, a researcher at the University of Georgia College of Public Health. The newly bereaved also face health risks, including a greater likelihood of hospital stays and clinic visits as well as troubles with insomnia.
"Grief makes you sick," Miles said.
Finding emotional support is critical as suddenly single parents shoulder the challenges of raising children and running households.
"Particularly for people who have lost someone, it's like we need to understand what this life post-COVID looks like in a way that is going to incorporate everything we've lived through," said Dr. Sophia Albott, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
"We want to honor what we have lost, and at the same time acknowledge that we did make it through it — and hopefully have some sense of strength because of that."
Missing a soulmate
Leslie Parker worked as an educational support professional for Osseo Area Schools and was studying to become certified as a counselor with a focus on at-risk students.
At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, he was a gentle giant who enjoyed roughhousing with his teenage cousins or relaxing in his basement, where he set up a home theater and basketball hoop so kids in the extended family would hang out there. He showered kisses on his daughter, Zuri, now 9, and hoped to share his love of basketball with his son, Chance, now 2.
Before he got sick, Leslie wrote an essay about how his family realized an unexpected benefit with the pandemic, since stay-at-home rules meant more time together.
"This is how I'll choose to remember COVID-19: The virus forced distance between us, but it also made us closer," he wrote.
Then came the illness. It struck in late April 2020, ultimately forcing Leslie to the hospital. He spent several days on a ventilator and died from COVID-19 within a few weeks at age 31.
Whitney dreaded telling Zuri that "literally her favorite person wasn't coming home." She tortured herself with questions about how Leslie might have been exposed to the virus. Gallbladder surgery forced Whitney into the hospital shortly after her husband's death. As she recovered, she sometimes felt angry about losing her soulmate.
"My husband is supposed to be here," she said in a June 2020 interview. "I never thought that I would be a widow at this age, with two kids."
The day Leslie died, neighbors turned out on the family's front lawn to show support with flowers and cards. Relatives and friends from across the Twin Cities delivered help and love.
In time, Whitney opened the hospital bag labeled "personal effects" to find her husband's mobile phone. Leslie loved creating spreadsheets, so she wasn't surprised to quickly find a file with all the information she needed for paying bills.
Last summer, Whitney felt strong enough to finally retrieve Leslie's ashes from the funeral home and by September, the family organized a memorial service. Yet even with that bit of closure, Whitney found herself spiraling downward.
"I thought I was getting better and feeling better. And then Thanksgiving hit. And Christmas hit," she said. "Around the holiday season, I started looking for help."
Working a new puzzle
Whitney's online searches led her to Young Widows and Widowers of COVID-19, a Facebook group that, coincidently, was featured in a news article that a friend happened to send to her. It now has more than 500 members, mostly from the U.S., although only a few dozen or so typically attend twice-weekly online meetings.
"It's sad that you find people who know how you feel," Whitney said, "but it's like a sisterhood and brotherhood."
While the meetings are also open to widowers, most attendees are women with children.
Membership keeps growing, said Addison, the group's founder, even as COVID-19's grip across the U.S. weakens. Yet while many this summer are excited to return to pre-pandemic norms, that's not an option for those who lost spouses. "For some of us," Whitney said, "there is no 'normal' to get back to."
When Valentine's Day came, the widows met online to play Bingo rather than dwell on their solitude. They regularly talk about how to help their children deal with their sadness — as well as the need to continue activities they love, despite the loss.
Like others in the online group, Whitney this year launched a GoFundMe page to help with finances, since her income as a part-time hairdresser only goes so far. She felt sad this spring about letting go of Leslie's truck, but took comfort in hearing that other widows saw banks repossess vehicles they couldn't afford.
Group members talk about handling the remains of loved ones while preserving memories. Whitney made a gallery wall in her basement, where Zuri goes to remember her dad.
During Whitney's virtual meeting on Mother's Day, one woman explained how she'd been trying to get pregnant when her husband was stricken. Another widow said she learned of her pregnancy just two days before her husband was hospitalized.
Earlier this spring, Whitney struggled to find words when Zuri asked why vaccines weren't available in time for Leslie. She sees her husband's belongings around their home and wonders what to keep for Chance, who otherwise won't have memories of his father. A sweatshirt that Leslie draped over the back of his desk chair serves as a comfort.
But she's moving forward, and is working on a plan for the widows and widowers to finally meet face-to-face this summer.
"This tragedy really ripped apart the pieces in my life, but these ladies and men are really helping me ... realize the puzzle has changed," she said. "I'm just trying to work the new puzzle now, because I know Leslie wouldn't want me to just sit here and be nothing and be miserable."
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