My father, Neil Krieger, died four weeks ago from COVID-19 complications. Yet, even with those words typed out on the page, even with having placed dirt on top of his coffin, even with having helped my mother retrieve his wedding ring from the hospital, I can’t quite believe it.
They say that every loved one’s death comes as a shock, no matter how or when they die. But I can’t help but think that my dad’s death is different, that it’s harder to accept for having come at the end of a series of missteps and incompetence on the part of those very individuals charged with protecting vulnerable people like him.
Even with those words typed out on the page, even with having placed dirt on top of his coffin, even with having helped my mother retrieve his wedding ring from the hospital, I can’t quite believe it.
I saw this chain of events unfold across the country as an opinion editor for NBC News THINK, commissioning pieces on how the Trump administration hadn’t provided the needed funds or the staff to safeguard us from a pandemic, how it wasn’t tracking and separating those arriving from China and Europe, and how it was mishandling the distribution of tests to isolate carriers. And I saw it in my colleagues’ coverage of politicians downplaying the danger, giving out misinformation and not putting the necessary restrictions in place. It is a chain of events that on Wednesday culminated in 100,000 American deaths — with no signs of stopping anytime soon.
Sadly, I also saw weak links on the local level. The doctor at the Boston dialysis center my dad had been visiting three times a week assured him it was the safest place he could be, but my mother observed health care transportation workers entering without masks, temperature checks or other protective measures. Her concerns went unheeded by the staff.
Though my parents took every possible precaution, going out only for his treatments, my dad (and several other patients at the clinic) contracted the virus. My mom then caught it from my dad. Thankfully, she recovered.
My father — who at 78 was not fearful of death and never tried to fight his mortality, instead reading books on the end of life and inviting my brother and me to discuss them with him — still was angry when he saw the government malpractice unfolding this spring.
One day, shortly before his symptoms began, he called me, irate that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hadn’t closed the beaches to college students and partiers. (We are only beginning to understand how much damage that may have caused.)
“You’re a journalist,” he told me. “Isn’t there more you can do?” He urged me and my news organization to produce more stories exposing what the governor was (or wasn’t) doing, the lives he was playing with.
So is my father’s passing harder for me to accept because of the anger that he was suddenly taken from us before his time? Because of the fatal negligence of our leaders and the neglect of many Americans who didn’t take the threat seriously? Or because I worry that I, too, could have done more to prevent it?
I asked grief specialist David Kessler these questions to try to make sense of my feelings. He assured me that coping with the loss of a loved one from the coronavirus — and the leadership failures that furthered the pandemic's spread, particularly as someone who warned against them — really is different than many other kinds of deaths.
“Even though you knew at some point you were going to be saying goodbye to your dad, you’ve been robbed of even a little more of the time you would have gotten with him,” Kessler, the author of “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief,” said. “It’s so horrible.”
Many of the aspects of COVID-19 deaths — being unexpected, sudden, potentially preventable — “enormously complicate” the experience of grief, he told me. “It means it’s more challenging, it’s longer, it’s more difficult.”
Kessler noted that he started a Facebook group specifically for those struggling with losses in the coronavirus era, and that outrage at how the broader world is handling the situation is a common theme among its participants.
Though this outward anger might be reasonable, Kessler urged me not to turn it inward; self-blame was unwarranted and only muddies the healing process. “There is some blame that’s there,” he said, referring to the actions of the authorities. “But it’s not yours.”
After our conversation, I realized that while the cause of my father’s death might make the healing process harder, ultimately I’d find that healing the same way so many others have. For all the bad in the ending, there was a lot of good in my father's story for me to hold onto.
My dad enjoyed a long, full life. It was the one that he wanted, and he lived it on his terms, prioritizing his love for his wife and children and friends over making money or earning accolades. And he expressed that love — and laughter and tears and frustration and whatever other emotions came along — so that every moment and every relationship were experienced in their fullness and nothing was left unsaid.
My dad enjoyed a long, full life. It was the one that he wanted, and he lived it on his terms, prioritizing his love for his wife and children and friends over making money or earning accolades.
So he knew how proud I was of him for overcoming the challenges of childhood neglect and a potentially debilitating illness. For seizing the positives he could find and creating the ones he couldn’t, whether devising a safer form of anesthesia in his work as a scientist or coming up with a word for what a citrus fruit does when it squirts in your eye (“orbisculate”).
He knew how much I admired his wisdom and values, particularly his belief that an individual can make a difference, whether as a civil rights activist pressing all-white businesses to hire black workers, as he did in Boston in the 1960s, or as a journalist pressing for better governance and societal action at the time of a pandemic. While we can always do more, the key thing is to do.
And he knew how much he inspired me, so that even now I am following his example and seizing the positives in this moment: Though I am certainly upset at all those who failed my father and so many like him these last few months, I am also grateful to all those doing the right thing.
Every runner wearing an uncomfortable mask, every family canceling an outing, every grocery store clerk and delivery person risking their well-being to work, every doctor and nurse staying apart from their families to treat infected patients is a person making a sacrifice to protect the most vulnerable.
It wasn’t enough for my father, but hopefully it will be enough for someone else’s. And the comfort of knowing that we can still help one another and try to save others is also something that makes death in the time of the coronavirus different.