For Kansas Citians Who Lost Loved Ones In Quarantine, Returning To 'Normal' Brings New Waves Of Grief
To re-enter the world post-quarantine is to be confronted again with loss, something happening all around us due to "excess bereavement." Rebecca Pryor is one of many Kansas Citians facing that delayed grieving right now.
Near the end of 2019, just before COVID hit Kansas City, Rebecca Pryor and her husband went out for a walk, as they did most days.
Suddenly, her husband — musician Stephen Phillips — stopped in his tracks.
"He said, 'Beck, I've got to stop,'" Pryor recalls. "His exact words were, 'I feel like I'm gonna die.' He just was breathless, basically, was what was happening to him."
A diagnosis followed: pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring of the lungs.
Phillips was best known as the charismatic guitarist and songwriter for The Elders, an Irish rock group that performed all over the world. Phillips and Pryor had been a couple since high school, where they connected after a talent show over a shared love of music. In the late 1970s, the two sometimes performed as a street duo in Westport.
They married in 1982 and their first child was born in 1986, the same year Phillips' earlier band, The Rainmakers, got signed to a big label. Pryor likes to joke that her oldest son learned to walk on a tour bus, going up and down the aisle.
Pryor will never know for sure whether her husband died of COVID-19 or pulmonary fibrosis — or some combination of the two. Because of the pandemic, Phillips never managed to see a lung specialist as planned. Even if he'd been able to secure an appointment, he couldn't wear a mask due to difficulty breathing.
The emergency room was their only option, one they avoided as long as possible. In October 2020, they finally checked in for help. Phillips spent 10 days in the ICU and 10 days in a COVID ward before being discharged back into Pryor's care.
"We had one night of rest together, and then he got up and showed me some business things. And then he said, 'Becky, I need you to help me transition,'" Pryor recalls. "And then he was just very focused and very graceful."
Phillips died in November, and Pryor has spent the subsequent 10 months in mourning. She buried her husband and tended his grave. She faced the hard realities of everyday life without him: eating dinner alone, sleeping alone.
"There are just so many adjustments," Pryor says. "I mean, I've been with him since I was a child."
But because of the continued pandemic, those adjustments remained intimate. They happened within a safe inner circle of family and friends, or at home by herself.
Facing the larger world without him is totally new.
"There are so many firsts that you have to face," Pryor says. "I think most of those firsts are running into people that I haven't seen."
Earlier this summer, Pryor attended a block party where a few musicians from The Elders put on a porch concert—Pryor's first live music event without Phillips.
A devoted fan of the Elders had texted Pryor to let her know about the show.
"And I thought, you know, this would be a lovely introduction into music because honestly, even at home, I've barely listened to music because it was such a background of our lives," Pryor tells me through tears, pressing a hand to her heart.
The live music brought her joy. So did seeing friendly faces. The hard part came when the music ended — when Pryor would have normally become an unofficial part of the crew, breaking things down alongside her husband so they could hurry along to whatever came next.
Without Steve, when the show ended, Pryor had nothing to do but to leave.
Brian Resnick, a science journalist covering the aftermath of COVID-19 for Vox.com, says that Pryor is experiencing symptoms of a larger phenomenon.
"If you know someone who lost someone, and it happened early on in the pandemic, the grief can hit them later on because what we've been living through is weird and not normal," Resnick says.
As more and more activities return to their pre-pandemic routines, Resnick explains, the bereaved aren't necessarily celebrating a triumphant return. They face a more complicated scenario: the shock of someone's absence in the world they used to know.
It's not just at parties that Pryor found herself revisited by grief. She and her husband used to frequent a neighborhood grocery store, but stopped shopping in-person when COVID hit. The person working checkout — someone the couple got to know through friendly banter over the years — didn't know that Phillips had been sick or died.
Going back to that store wasn't a return to normal; it meant acknowledging just how very not-normal things were. The same thing happened when Pryor went out for rocks for landscaping — a task that Phillips had always enjoyed.
"Steve loved working with the guy at the rock place," she recalls. "And I went and got the rocks just like I've done in the past, that when I drove up to, I just had all these emotions."
Loss always brings these kinds of encounters, but they don't usually hit all at once, months after-the-fact.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, estimate that every death to COVID-19 has left nine people in mourning. In the Kansas City metro, at least 2,589 people have died from COVID-19, and experts suggest this statistic actually undercounts the true number of coronavirus deaths.
That translates to more than 23,000 people in a state of bereavement — for COVID-19 deaths in Kansas City alone.
Resnick says this surplus of grief is known as "excess bereavement," and it won't go away when the virus does. Besides which, people have not stopped dying for causes unrelated to the pandemic: Their loved ones, too, now face delayed milestones along the grieving timeline.
I'm seeing overdue expressions of grief all around me.
A childhood friend died in late December, but his memorial has just been scheduled for August. My friend, a quirky and brilliant robotics professor named Aaron, maintained a blog where he chronicled life with a brain tumor.
After his death, that blog provided the only real platform for friends, family, students and colleagues to gather in his memory. I still get an email every time someone leaves a comment. I used to wince when they landed in my inbox; I've since become accustomed, eagerly toggling over to read the fond memories people share.
But when I come face-to-face with his sister and mom and finally tell them out loud how sorry I am, eight months later, I suspect the shock will feel brand new for all of us.
Pryor still feels that shock. There's one phrase she heard consistently after Phillips' death, and hopes to never hear again: "I wish I could hug you."
For all those painful firsts she's encountering back in the world, one burden at least will ease: that of grieving alone.
When I first saw Rebecca at that block party in June, I don't remember what I said. But she does: I asked permission to hug her.