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Woman who lost three aunts to COVID-19 joins millions of family members forced to grieve from afar

'I thank God for the Zoom, but it just wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t ideal to say goodbye.'

ATLANTA — Customs and rituals for mourning loved ones vary from culture to culture, but they all share one element: connection. These are trying times for families physically apart during COVID-19. They face the challenges of coping with grief alone or at a distance all while settling for new ways to honor the dead.

Micki Smith lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She's experiencing these challenges first hand.

“My grandmother’s sisters were my great-aunts, but they were my only aunts,” said Smith, “There wasn’t a weekend, a day, that we weren’t together.”

Smith lost her three aunts two weeks apart. Since the start of the pandemic, 1.5 million Americans have passed away-- more than 170,000 -- from COVID19. Smith joins millions of family members forced to grieve from afar.

She’s lived in Georgia since 2006, but most of her family lives in Michigan.

“You couldn’t say goodbye. We had to watch three Zoom funerals in two and a half weeks’ time. It was tough. It still is,” said Smith.

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Dr. Marilyn Mendoza is a psychologist located in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her practices specialize in grief, bereavement trauma, and women’s issues.

“Grieving is one of the hardest things we’re ever going to do,” explains Dr. Mendoza, “Not being able to be with your loved one, not being able to touch their hand, how can you feel anything but guilty about that? And of course, lots of people do.”

After her last aunt’s funeral, Smith made the drive to Detroit.

“I went up a Saturday and came back a Sunday by myself. I drove 12 hours, said Smith, “I just had to. I kind of had to absorb it for myself, because I couldn’t believe it.”

Psychologists warn of “complicated grief,” or prolonged, persistent grief, from the challenges of processing loss during the pandemic.

“You can say, ‘I would like to give you a hug,’ but it’s very different from getting that hug,” said Dr. Mendoza.

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She explained that people with complicated or traumatic grief may experience problems with eating, sleeping, and doing activates. Some may have suicidal thoughts.

“Talking with your clergy, trying to find a therapist, all those things are helpful,” said. Dr. Mendoza, “If you can find some form of human contact, whether over the phone or on FaceTime, it’s better than nothing.”

Smith is still coping with the death of her aunts. She says she takes each moment as they come.

“I have moments where I wake up and I’ll say, ‘Did this just happen? Don’t get me wrong, I thank God for the Zoom, but it just wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t ideal to say goodbye,” said Smith.