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My Turn: Grief and the coronavirus collide

May 4 was the 50th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University, a day that hit me hard because my friend Jeff Miller was among those killed that day by National Guardsmen. We had grown up together in Plainview, where our mothers were best friends.

The day coincided with my husband Ken’s best friend (since junior high school) Victor being transferred to hospice after contracting COVID-19 — on top of end-stage cancer.

I felt the combined pain of a life stolen from a young man and a life drained by disease from a vibrant senior citizen. Grief seemed to have affected my entire body; I felt enervated, exhausted, angry and hopeless. I had trouble staying awake, and I was developing a nasty cough.

Victor died the next day. I felt weak and had the chills; by the end of the day I realized that I wasn’t necessarily an overemotional drama queen. I might actually be sick.

I had been taking online Zumba classes, but I barely had the energy to walk. My daily online jam sessions, where I played soprano recorder with other Celtic folk musicians, had to be paused. I couldn’t concentrate or play up to tempo.

I didn’t have a fever, but suddenly I had no sense of taste or smell. The next morning I called my doctor, who advised me to go to a drive-through COVID-19 testing center at ProHealth in Jericho. Because I didn’t have a fever and my chest was clear (and I hadn’t left the house in two months), I was certain it couldn’t be the coronavirus. But the next day, the test came back positive.

I had no way of knowing how severe my case might be. I am 68, with no co-morbidities, but given the random impact of the disease, I had no idea what to expect.

In a panic, I told my husband that I didn’t want to die, something I had never had reason to say out loud.

I spoke to my doctor, who reassured me that all signs pointed to a mild case. Still, I couldn’t relax until I was convinced the virus wouldn’t advance to a more serious level. I continued to pay much too much attention to every possible signal from my body.

Next, I had to determine how best to tell my adult children without alarming them. I told them right away, emphasizing the doctor’s opinion that my symptoms weren’t likely to become more severe.

I continued to question how much of my exhaustion was an emotional response to the confluence of events and tedium of extended isolation, and how much was a physical symptom of COVID-19. I had to be calm and patient, although I felt on edge. Part of me felt embarrassed and ashamed that I had the “disease”; it somehow made me feel unclean, that I had to keep it a secret, or at least private. While grateful that I had escaped the debilitating stages of the disease, I identified and grieved with others who were not so lucky. I never stopped wondering what secret symptoms might still be discovered.

Even as I healed, after about two weeks, I felt like an astronaut flying into uncharted territory with no idea what shape I’d be in when I returned to Earth. This mysterious disease was “unprecedented,” and new symptoms could occur later. That knowledge and news coverage increased my general anxiety as I looked for changes in my body.

Meanwhile, my husband had been waiting for elective surgeries to resume because he needed an ankle replacement. Two days before his scheduled procedure in mid-June, his COVID-19 test came back positive. He was asymptomatic; we had no idea how long he had had the disease. (I always assumed he gave the virus to me in late April because he did all the shopping.)

With his surgery postponed for a month, my worries returned — that he might be positive forever, another possible effect of this unprecedented journey. When he finally tested negative in mid-July, he had a successful replacement.

The ramifications of the coronavirus, for individuals and for society, are unclear. But one thing is certain: I will never be the same.

Erica Whitman Davis,


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