The last time Pamela Addison saw her husband alive, on April 3, she managed to mouth the words "I love you" to him before the paramedics loaded him into the ambulance.
Martin Addison, 44, a speech pathologist, couldn't respond. He had been struggling to breathe as he tried to recover from Covid-19 at home two weeks after having been exposed at the hospital where he conducted swallow evaluations on patients. As she held her 6-month-old son, Graeme, and her 2-year-old-daughter, Elsie, and watched the ambulance drive away, she still held on to hope that her husband, healthy and in his prime, would recover quickly. After all, the news reports at the time suggested that the victims of the pandemic were predominantly elderly or those with pre-existing conditions.
He died 26 days later.
Addison was left alone with their two young children, having to isolate in her home in Waldwick, New Jersey, physically cut off from friends and family. Being a diabetic, she needed to be careful to protect herself to make sure she'd be there for her kids. It seemed to Addison that Martin, despite his sacrifice as a front-line health care worker, had become another statistic in the surging crush of Covid-19 obituaries.
"All my friends had their husbands, they were healthy. I only knew me," said Addison, who turned 37 on Monday. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, nobody else is going to understand what I'm going through' — and that was a whole other part of my grief."
Months later, Addison has found a way to share her grief and honor her husband's memory.
Having been inspired by a sympathy card she got from another widow, a stranger whose husband died under similar circumstances, Addison, a reading teacher, has set out to provide support for others like them. Addison founded a Facebook support group, Young Widows and Widowers of Covid-19, for others struggling as single parents in the isolation brought by the pandemic.
Less than two months after its launch on Nov. 7, the group has 84 members (and counting) from across the country, as well as from the United Kingdom.
It's a start: There are plans for eventual Zoom meetups and, once a vaccine is readily available, for in-person gatherings, as well.
"A lot of young women are losing their husbands to this, and they think they are alone," Addison said. "We need to come together and support each other, because Covid-19 is like a different type of death."
That fateful sympathy card came from Kristina Scorpo, 33, a postpartum nurse and mother of two young sons, who is now an administrator of the Facebook group. After she lost her husband, Frank, a police officer in Paterson, New Jersey, to the virus on Easter Sunday, another police widow sent her a card to affirm that she wasn't alone in her grief. The sender also wrote that one day Scorpo would reciprocate the gesture by sending a card to another woman in pain.
The day came sooner than expected after Scorpo read Martin Addison's story on a GoFundMe page for his family that was posted on social media by a mutual friend. Her own grief was fresh, but Scorpo had a two-week head start on Addison in navigating the unique challenges of raising her sons, Francesco, now 5, and Santino, now 15 months, as a single mom in the era of social distancing.
"I read that she had a 2-year-old and a new 5-month-old when her husband passed away, and I had a 4½-year-old and a 6-month old, so I was like 'she's the one that I'm going to send the card to,'" Scorpo said, "because we were in exactly the same boat. We had lost our husbands to the exact same thing.
"And I'm glad I did."
Both Addison and Scorpo were no longer alone.
Even though they have yet to meet in person, the two women have become close friends, regularly texting and speaking by phone to support each other. They talk of the day when their kids can finally meet, having a bond in their shared loss that can't be understood by their other young friends.
"We didn't plan on this," Scorpo said. "We didn't plan to be widowed at 36 or 33. We didn't plan to raise our kids without our partners that we saw our lives with and we saw a future with."
But with Addison, "it was like we knew exactly what the other one was going to say, because we had been through all the same things, and it's a really great thing that life brought us together," she said.
Realizing that she wasn't alone, Addison wrote a blog post detailing her story, which was published by the New Jersey news site NJ.com in October. When other women recently widowed by Covid-19 commented on the post, she decided to set up the Facebook group where they could share their stories.
That shared connection is critical. The unique layered stressors of the pandemic are unprecedented in our lifetimes — the potential for sickness and death, economic worries, isolation, remote learning and political chaos among them — and decades of research show that support groups can be beneficial to those suffering a common trauma, said Dana Rose Garfin, a psychologist.
"Everybody tries to help, and nobody knows what to say," said Garfin, an assistant adjunct professor at the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing at the University of California, Irvine. "But when other people have had that same experience, there is a level of empathy and understanding that can be deeply comforting."
Emma Charlesworth, 39, has found a lifeline with these women on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Kent, England. The pain is universal: Her husband, Stuart, a 45-year-old finance officer, died on April 19 after a three-week battle with Covid-19 in the hospital, suddenly leaving her as a single mother to their 10-year-old daughter, Rebekah.
"The group is so important to me because despite the geographical distance it’s comforting to speak with people who get it," said Charlesworth. "Who understand the pain and suffering of losing a spouse due to Covid-19.
"It’s a club and opportunity to bond that none of us asked for or wanted to join but are so grateful to have."
One of the recent additions to the group is Diana Ordonez, 34, a widow from New Jersey who lost her husband, Juan, on April 11, five days before their daughter, Mia, turned 5.
Juan Ordonez, an information security analyst at UPS, became sick March 13, days before there was even a lockdown in New Jersey. In the early days after his death, Diana had visits from her pastor and his family, who, like her, had come down with Covid-19 but recovered, and virtual support from her parents and siblings in other states.
"When I became a widow, you heard of almost no young widows, especially because all the cases being reported were either elderly or people with underlying conditions," said Ordonez, a product manager and marketer. "I remember I yearned for someone to talk to, because nobody else really understands this loss, because it was so unique and different."
As the weeks and months passed, Ordonez struggled to both work virtually and home-school her daughter, who was struggling to process a loss that is hard enough for adults.
"For the first few months, Mia wouldn't go to sleep in her bed by herself, because Daddy left in the middle of the night" for the hospital while she was sleeping "and didn't come back," Ordonez said. "So, she was afraid that Mom would die in the middle of the night, too.
"To me, that was hard, because nighttime was my time to try to process and be by myself and grieve or try to lean on other people," she said.
The group has helped share the emotional burden, but it isn't always easy for her to participate.
"On some level, it's a little triggering, too," Ordonez said. "It's been eight months, and you feel like 'OK, I'm healing.' But then you have to be mentally prepared to read something, because it can take you right back to where you were."
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Still, Ordonez said she's grateful that she joined the Young Widows and Widowers of Covid-19 Facebook group just before the holidays — a time that had special meaning for her and Juan. Nine years ago, he proposed to her on Christmas Eve; the anniversary of their first date is Jan. 2.
Addison said it's been a rough few weeks for many of the members, with several encouraging one another to honor their late spouses by keeping the traditions alive and keeping continuity for their kids.
"We're all in different stages of grief. Some people have just lost their husband, when it feels hopeless, like there isn't going to be happiness again or joy," Addison said. "And then there are others. Several of us are in the 'April group.'
"I feel like we can help them," she said. "Even if they're not where I am now, I can support them. And that's healing for me, too."