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The New Normal: Life After Loss

Life is returning to the way it was before March 2020, but one thing lost during the pandemic will never come back: loved ones.

Losing someone is always traumatizing. Not being able to carry out social and cultural traditions after a death makes it that much harder.

People were not able to visit sick loved ones, say goodbye, gather at funerals or console each other face to face.

A study by the National Academy of Sciences found that every one COVID-19 death leaves approximately nine grieving people.

With over half a million U.S. deaths from the pandemic, that’s a lot of grieving people.

Linda Guster, from Bay City, was one of those whose mourning was affected by the pandemic. She lost her 53-year-old step-son last year in April. He didn’t die from COVID-19, but restrictions to keep the disease at bay kept his family from visiting or seeing him one last time.

“If you don't say goodbye to one of your loved ones, I don't know how to explain it, but it's really, really hard,” she said.

Guster said the disrupted grieving process made the loss even harder.

“We had a little tiny service. We all had to stand away from each other," she said. "A handful of people at the grave, that’s all we had for him. It's been very hard."

Seclusion from human comfort has deeply affected people, said Dr. Lauren Alessi, a clinical psychologist in Petoskey.

“The most important thing is that they weren't physically able to give hugs, reassurance and physical contact with their loved ones,” she said. “They were left isolated in their homes.”

Alessi said she wants people to remember that what they are feeling is normal.

Columbiaville pastor Phil Tousley said people missed out on one of two vital aspects of healing after loss. There’s grieving, in private. And mourning, in public.

“A funeral or a memorial service is an opportunity, if I can call it that, for public mourning,” he said. “When that's not available, I'm sure there's an effect. Now, we don't know what that is at this point.”

Guster and her family are planning a celebration of life. She said it’s something they all need.

“On the anniversary of his death we’re going to go up there, and we’re gonna have a memorial,” she said. “Because his favorite thing to drink was Jack Daniels, everybody's going to drink a shot for Derick and play Kiss music for him at his grave site.”

But healing is endless. People do not move on. They adapt. Guster said they have started that process by setting up a memorial in their home.

“I never liked the band KISS, but when I want to think about him or I'm thinking about him a lot I'll play that music and I'll play it, just like he does,” she said. “He used to play his music so loud, and I'll do it, just because that's Derek and I know it’s Derek.”

Like many people, Guster said she sought comfort at a local grief center.

“You’re not alone and you realize there's people out there that [have] dealt with all this stuff, and they're still living.”

There, she met Camille Gerace Nitschky, owner of the Children’s Grief Center of the Great Lakes Bay region.

Nitschky said they offer a space for people to do their own healing.

“The people help each other; it's not like counselors one on one,” she said. “I really like that, the therapeutic value of someone who's been through an experience helping someone else who's been through an experience.”

Nitschky has held a grief camp each year since 2019 in which kids, adults, and volunteers spend a day together making crafts, and doing other activities, like playing drums.

Josh Robinson, a professional percussionist and drum leader, said sometimes it is "easier to play than to say."

“Music and drums are a way for healthy self expression and emotional release, and sometimes words fall short when you want to communicate. The arts, or in my case drumming, can be a really powerful way to express yourself and communicate,” he said.

“Physically, it feels good to pound out some of those feelings and emotions. I think music is a safe space and a non-judgmental space for them to navigate some of those feelings and reflect and pay tribute to their loved ones in that way," said Robinson.

In addition, Nitschky’s center offers group sessions. She said people heal their hearts little by little as they share experiences and emotions. She wears a heart pin on her shirt to symbolize that.

“Your hearts wounded and when you share your story it wraps a strand of strength around it and then when you share it again, it wraps it again and again and even though your hearts wounded you still have this protection around it so that you can live your life and go out in the world,” she said.

Jordan Starkenburg is an associate pastor in Traverse City. He said society doesn’t like talking about death, but starting a conversation is important.

“That's kind of the other side of the coin is that responsibility to invite people to, to name the emotions they're going through and to not try to swallow them up or push them down but to just sit with them and allow them to explore that,” he said.

He says not everyone may want to talk but oftentimes bereaved people feel extremely lonely. It’s important for family and friends to offer a space to co-exist with someone, even in silence.

Psychologist Alessi said crying is also beneficial to releasing emotions.

“Many times people don't allow themselves to shed tears,” she said. “I think that sometimes [it] can be a relief to people, especially if it's just from time to time.”

But some people prefer not to open up to others at all. Human interaction does not help everyone. For people like Phil Johnson in the Isabella County village of Shepherd, animals make the best company.

He lost his wife in February. They were married almost 60 years. He said family members are pushing him to talk to a counselor, but he has no interest. Instead, he takes comfort in their dog named Sonny.

“If I didn’t have Sonny, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Johnson says his dog keeps him entertained. And reminds him of his wife “all the time."

But still, he said, he is lonely.

“When you live with somebody for 59 years, you're of the same fabric,” he said. “In other words, everything that I thought about usually centered around her.”

Johnson says he keeps busy at his old car business, now owned by his son, but there’s something else that keeps him going every day — his wife’s flower garden.

“She wanted me, after she passed away, to take care of it,” he said. “Her sunflower was her favorite flower so I put marigolds around the edge, and then you can see the sunflowers here coming up.”

For some, that's not enough. Death often causes people to evaluate their own mortality, leading to questions that there may not be answers to, according to Pastor Phil Tousley — questions like, "Why are we here?" "Where are we from?" and "Where are we going?"

Tousley said some people embrace religion to find comfort in these unknowns.

“We live in a world where there are not answers to certain questions unless we embrace a faith system or we have our own philosophy about such things, but everyone answers these questions in one way or another,” he said.

Linda Guster said she and her spouse have used their faith to keep their loved one with them.

“My husband and I are kind of religious, and we pray and do things about it all the time.”

Barb Smith, of Saginaw, lost her mom, Rose, a year ago. Smith said she keeps her in her heart in a few different ways.

“I pray to her. I carry around my necklace. I have pictures of her on my dresser,” she said. “One time I got mad at something and I grabbed my mom’s necklace and I said, 'C'mon mom. We’re going.'"

Smith said she had an extremely hard time with her mom’s death. Rose was in a care facility for five months. No visitors were allowed.

Before the pandemic, “Somebody visited her every day while she was there,” Smith said. “She went from people visiting to no one.”

Smith said they brought her mom home about a day before she died. She said she realized afterward that the facility was not able to give her mom adequate care or attention because they were understaffed.

“In my opinion it was inhumane,” she said. “We treat animals better than that.”

She said she regretted not bringing her mom home earlier. But she was completely unaware of the conditions.

Smith said she had a lot of anger because of that, but all it did was make her worse off.

“It took me about two months," to over come the anger, she said.

"I didn’t like who I was. I couldn't hold my mom's peace in my heart and I had to make a decision that it wasn’t about me, it was about her. And if I had anger in my heart, then I felt like she couldn’t have the peace in her new life.”

Alessi says feelings like Smith’s are very common.

“Many people will feel angry even at the doctors and nurses, if they're not able to go and say goodbye to their loved one, and the doctors and the nurses are saying no, you can't come in here. It's not safe because of the COVID-19,” she said. “It’s common for people to hold on to this anger, and the depression and the anxiety.”

But Smith said she decided to embrace what she has, not what she lost. She said she knows her mom is always with her.

“We can't decide how people are going to die,” she said. “We have to decide how we're going to live.”

Since the pandemic, a lot of people have had to decide how they’re going to live now that someone they love has passed.

The Associated Press released a study finding that 20% of people in America had lost someone close to them to COVID-19.

That’s over 65 million people facing a “new normal”: life after loss.

Aurora is a photojournalist major and an undecided minor going into her sophomore year at Central Michigan University. After college, she hopes to work as a photojournalist.