Last September, Noe Rodriguez, Jr., a thirty-nine-year-old security contractor, travelled from Tulsa to Dallas to visit his parents for Labor Day weekend. Several days after he returned home, he started suffering from diarrhea. Soon, he and his wife, Stephanie Hester-Rodriguez, tested positive for the coronavirus. They both felt slammed by intense symptoms—a head-spinning flu, trouble breathing—and Stephanie, who is forty-one and helps run a free clinic and food pantry, called her doctor and received antiviral treatment. The next morning, she felt better; but Noe, who didn’t have health insurance, continued to deteriorate.
“He stopped making sense,” Stephanie told me recently, at the family’s spacious bungalow in the Tulsa suburbs. “I thought he was dehydrated.” She phoned a mobile I.V. unit, but, when the technicians arrived, one of them, an off-duty firefighter, told her to call an ambulance. “He was hypotoxic,” she said. Noe was rushed to the hospital, but Stephanie wasn’t allowed to ride with him in the ambulance, out of fear of infection. “It was so stupid,” Stephanie said. “I already had COVID.” After the ambulance took Noe, the couple’s two kids—Izzy, sixteen, and Sonny, eleven—never got to speak with him again.
As Stephanie recalled the incident, Izzy, with oversized glasses and dishwater-blond hair in a bun atop her head, listened from a nearby pouf. Noe and Stephanie, when they were contagious, had isolated themselves from their children. Both parents were unvaccinated. “He was waiting for F.D.A. approval,” Stephanie told me. “He didn’t realize that had already happened.” It bothered Stephanie when people asked about Noe’s vaccination status, as if his illness were his fault. “It makes me so angry,” she said. Yet it also bothered her when family members pooh-poohed how serious the virus could be, and how lethal. “Lots of people have COVID fatigue,” she said. When friends posted statistics on Facebook that seemed to diminish the severity of the illness, or spoke sarcastically about it, she corrected them. “It’s just not accurate,” she told me.
In the hospital, Noe was placed in a coma, and, eighteen days later, on October 10th, he turned forty. Five days after that, he died. Sonny went into free fall. Noe had coached his youth football team, and, at first, Sonny felt lost on the team, but Izzy and Stephanie persuaded him to continue. A week after Noe died, the family held a funeral. Sonny’s football team came wearing their jerseys. Izzy made a slideshow and picked some music. “My dad loved hip-hop, so I chose some without swear words since we were in church,” she said. “I asked my mom, but apparently ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ wasn’t an option.”
Izzy, who comes off as brilliant and darkly funny, described herself as “a bit of an oddball.” She has little interest in the trappings of teen-age girldom, such as makeup and clothes, preferring books and conversations about ideas. She and Noe were particularly close. “The talks we had after 10 P.M. were magical,” she said. “We’d talk about everything—people, the nature of the universe, the Book of Genesis.” She went on, “You don’t know how alone you are until the only person who understands you isn’t here.” Izzy found it increasingly difficult to relate to her friends, and she noticed herself being short with them. “I lost my filter,” Izzy told me. “Once you have a parent die, no one knows how to talk to you. It’s awkward.” Sometimes other kids raised doubts about the reality of the coronavirus, but she ignored them. “Those conversations never end well,” she said.
Stephanie, who’d survived domestic abuse before meeting Noe, wanted to build yurts on their two-acre property for other women who’d endured trauma or been victims of sex trafficking. Izzy was hoping they could turn part of the property into a working farm, with goats, ducks, and a miniature cow. “We could only afford this house thanks to Noe,” Stephanie said. “He took good care of us.” After Noe’s death, Stephanie returned to her job, where she’d worked for the past twelve years. Her employer told her that she had to either get vaccinated or leave. She’d already decided to get the shot, but it irked her that people with no medical training could force her to make the decision. “Just because of my status, they made all kinds of assumptions about me,” she said.
Izzy still wasn’t vaccinated. “I want to do more research,” she told me. “The way I look at it is that it’s going into my body, and I wasn’t there when it was made.” She also worried that vaccine advocates were politically biased. After Noe was cremated, Stephanie asked the kids if they’d like to do something special with his ashes. Izzy asked her mom to find an hourglass that could be used to keep time in board games, and to fill it with Noe’s ashes and inscribe a tiny plaque with his name. “He hated game night,” she said. “Now he has to come and stay the entire time.”
After Noe died, Izzy asked her mom to find an hourglass that could be used to keep time in board games. The family filled it with Noe’s ashes, and inscribed a tiny plaque with his name.
These numbers are partly a matter of geography; New York and California, which have significant minority populations, were both hit hard early in the pandemic, before treatment was possible. They’re also a matter of unequal circumstances. “These populations already face inadequate health care and comorbidities with diabetes and other factors,” Catherine Jaynes, a senior director at the COVID Collaborative, told me. Minority families were also more likely to need economic support after the death of a loved one, and to be unaware of federal programs designed to help, including Social Security benefits for the deceased and a FEMA program that provides up to nine thousand dollars to cover funeral expenses. “The infrastructure to help them already exists,” Treglia said. As the pandemic has continued, the differences between death rates of white parents and caregivers and those of color have narrowed. “In part, the gap shrunk due to vaccine hesitancy,” Jaynes said.
There is currently no systematic means to identify children who have lost parents to COVID. “We don’t know who they are,” Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, told me. “We need a way to find these kids and track how they’re doing.” As with so many aspects of the pandemic, the long-term ramifications have yet to emerge. “These kids are going to be suffering for years and years,” Nelson added. Other families who share a form of loss—such as Gold Star families, or 9/11 families, or survivors of Hurricane Katrina—have come to support one another, but there’s no such network for children who’ve lost parents or caretakers to COVID. And yet, owing to the political controversies surrounding the disease, those children risk facing significant stigma. “Children who lose parents and caretakers are also more likely to experience P.T.S.D. and depression,” Treglia said. “My worry is that those who feel stigmatized won’t admit what their parent or caretaker died of, and those kids need care.”
Just before the operation, Carla tested positive for COVID. The surgery was cancelled, and the Whickers, feeling defeated, headed back to their well-kept ranch house on a cul-de-sac in the city of Skiatook, Oklahoma. Soon afterward, Bill and Brianna also tested positive. At first, Carla showed no symptoms, and Brianna’s were mild. “I had a stuffy nose for a day or two,” Brianna told me. Brianna is fourteen, with curly brown hair that she often tucks under a bright-orange wig, which she wears to cosplay an anime character named Denki; she has her mother’s upturned nose and her father’s crackling intelligence. “It was less than a cold,” she added.
Although his wife and daughter seemed fine, Bill was wracked with guilt. “Carla told me repeatedly that it wasn’t my fault,” he said. “But I was the one who brought it into our home.” Bill suspected that he’d contracted the virus on an emergency repair job in Tennessee a few days earlier. He was already vaccinated; the previous spring, as soon as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine became available, he’d driven four hours to get the shot. “I was really worried that I’d lose work without it,” he said. Carla had decided, under the medical advice of three doctors, to forgo the vaccine. “They told her it was too risky given her condition,” Brianna told me. Bill had allowed Brianna to choose whether she wanted to get vaccinated, and she had decided not to. “I heard what the doctors said to my mom, and all of the rumors, and was afraid that I couldn’t have kids,” she said.
Brianna, who has obsessive-compulsive tendencies and A.D.H.D., found traditional school to be a challenge during the pandemic. Carla started to homeschool her, and, with Bill travelling to repair computers, they were often alone together for weeks. Carla’s condition already made breathing difficult; in the past several years, she’d been placed on a ventilator six times. Brianna learned to listen for her mother’s cough through the walls of her tiny bedroom. If her mother couldn’t catch her breath, Brianna knew to call 911. “When I heard my mother’s cough, I stood still and waited to see how bad it would be,” she said.
On August 12th, Carla turned forty-nine, and, soon, she grew sick. Three days later, Bill called an ambulance. “A week after that, she was ventilated,” he said. “I just assumed she’d get better since we’d been on a vent before.” Then Carla contracted pneumonia. “That’s what took her from us,” he added. The suddenness of Carla’s death stunned them both, and Brianna had trouble assimilating her mother’s absence. “At first, I’d call out her name so that she could help me find something,” Brianna told me. “Then I realized she wasn’t coming.”
Brianna had only two friends: she’d met one in a community-service group for girls, in 2019, and the other on Reality, a live-streaming app. Neither could help Brianna process her loss. She felt increasingly fearful when left alone in the house, but was reticent to tell her dad how scared she was. “I didn’t want to worry him,” she said. She was now homeschooling herself, and spent her days trying to learn eighth-grade math and social studies. At first, she managed to keep B’s, but her grades eventually began to slide. Before long, she was failing every online course. “It wasn’t that she was doing her schoolwork poorly,” Bill said. “She wasn’t doing it at all.”
Bill attempted to return to work immediately, but his employer insisted that he take thirty days off, and connected him to the Tristesse Grief Center, a local nonprofit bereavement center, where he and Brianna began seeing therapists.“I wanted to show her there was no shame in seeking help,” Bill told me. “I also got her a security blanket.” After Carla died, Bill bought Brianna a CZ pistol in royal blue, and enrolled his daughter in handgun training with a former police officer. “It’s locked up in her room, and it’s what made me feel safe leaving her at home,” Bill said.
On a recent afternoon, Brianna sat up on her bed as her father showed me her messy closet, which he’d turned into a safe room to hold the gun. “What’s your combination?” he asked. When she answered, he punched in the four-digit code. LaShonda, Brianna’s thirty-two-year-old half sister, looked on. LaShonda told me that she had struggled to deal with her mother’s death. “I tried to kill myself this winter,” she said. “But having me here with my little sister was God’s plan.”
The safe’s lid popped open, and Bill lifted the pistol out. “The gun is in a holster,” he told me. The holster, which was patterned in a black-and-white American flag, added a layer of safety, he said, by slowing her down. “She can feel better just holding the weapon.” According to Brianna, this wasn’t her first gun. “My first one was a pink .22 called a cricket,” she said. “I got it when I was eight.” Bill said that a passerby had spotted tiny Brianna peering through the glass case of the gun counter, and had bought her the .22 on the spot. “That’s how the culture works here,” he said.
Although Bill plans to send Brianna back to “brick-and-mortar” school this fall, he feared that she might face pushback for talking about her mother’s cause of death. “I’ve made a huge effort to explain to Brianna that her mother died of pneumonia, not COVID,” Bill said. “I don’t want anyone to tell her that what her mother died of is fake.” Bill didn’t doubt that the virus existed, but he had reservations about how statistics could be used to render the illness more lethal than it actually is. He pointed to the FEMA program that offers funeral relief to families who lose a loved one to COVID. Bill had signed up: “It was just a couple of pages to fill out.” But he worried that the money would encourage people to falsely report deaths as COVID-related.
Before Brianna goes to in-person school in the fall, Bill wanted her to process her loss with other kids. Through the Tristesse Grief Center, he learned about Camp Erin, a retreat funded by Eluna, a nonprofit for national bereavement programs. The camp helped children deal with losing people they loved. “I signed her up right away,” he told me.
One Friday afternoon in June, Brianna and Izzy arrived at Camp Erin, in Tulsa, along with seventy-five other kids between the ages of six and seventeen. Izzy recognized the property: her parents had got married there. Brianna knew no one. “I’m a nervous wreck,” she told me. “My goal is to make a friend.” Izzy, who wasn’t looking to make friends, brought three books with her, one for each day. She never stopped reading, tucking her novels into a grief workbook so that she could keep reading while others were coloring in mandalas. “It’s a coping mechanism,” she told me.
The first evening, the girls participated in Walk to the Line, an exercise in which the kids were asked to step forward if they’d lost a pet, a friend, a parent. “We do this right away, so they can feel like they’re not alone,” Audrey McCraw, the executive director of the Tristesse Grief Center, which runs the camp, told me. Kids identify first around their relationship to the person they’ve lost, rather than the cause of death. When the counsellors called for kids who had lost a parent, about fifty stepped forward. Izzy noticed that Brianna was one of them, and wondered whether her mother had died of COVID. The campers attended small group sessions with counsellors and were invited to share their feelings. They built drums out of plastic Lowe’s utility buckets and rainbow duct tape. They ate popsicles, swam, danced together at a glow party, and participated in a variety of other activities. “Archery is my favorite,” Brianna said.
At Camp Erin, kids identify first around their relationship to the person they’ve lost, rather than the cause of death. The activities and group sessions help them feel like they’re “not alone,” a counsellor said.
Although the pair were staying in the same “Teen Girl” cabin, they didn’t meet until later that day, when I sat with them both around a fire pit. Brianna told me that she had immediately latched on to Anne Fincher, another homeschooler, whose brother was shot by accident through the wall of his apartment. “I made a friend!” Brianna said. Fincher was already borrowing Brianna’s favorite baby-blue “Mean Girls” hoodie. “I like wearing my mom’s pink camo,” Brianna added. Izzy, an introvert, eyed Brianna warmly as she spoke. Izzy noted how, despite her chattiness, Brianna deflected when the conversation approached the subject of death. “She’s a private person,” Izzy said. Izzy had deflected, too, she told me later: “But I use humor.”
“I haven’t told anyone my mom died of COVID,” Brianna said. It wasn’t a secret, but, according to Brianna, none of the girls asked one another how their “special person” had died. For many, the answer was alcoholism, drug overdose, or suicide. On intake forms, families could provide generalized causes: a COVID-related death might read, instead, as “pneumonia” or “heart failure.” A suicide might read as “mental health.” One teen girl couldn’t say the word “suicide” until she heard another camper use the term in a small group. “My dad did what he did,” she told the others. Those running the camp wondered if some of the deaths they heard about were related to a mental-health crisis brought on by the pandemic. “We’re wondering if we’re seeing the pandemic create a funnel of deaths of despair,” McCraw said. “It’s too soon for those of us in the mental-health field to draw conclusions.”
The next day, Brianna and Izzy tramped to the basketball court, along with the rest of their cabin, to decorate white china plates with negative emotions and experiences that they wanted to leave behind. “It’s so important to let kids know how to let go of emotions that no longer serve you,” McCraw said.
At a counsellor’s suggestion, I wandered over to the court to find the plates, and she directed me to a cardboard box labelled “Teen Girl.” Laying all of them out on a nearby picnic table, I was struck by their intensity and rage. “My father chose to take his life,” one read, in magenta marker spiralling toward the center. “I wish you would’ve kept your promises. I miss you every day.” Another featured a field of flowers beneath a blue sky, with minuscule printing above the scene. I picked up the plate to hold it closer. “Fuck you,” it read. Brianna had drawn a series of pictures, x-ing out a smiling blue face with red and writing above it, “No more fake smiles.” Izzy wrote, “You never know how many people don’t understand you until the one person who did understand you isn’t here.”
That evening, following a pizza party, everyone gathered under the basketball court’s corrugated roof. Beginning with the six-year-olds, each cabin was invited to don goggles and work gloves and pick up their plates. One by one, the kids announced into a cordless microphone what they wanted to leave behind. Anger, gas prices, climate change, anxiety, depression, “my dumb stepdad,” kids said. “Sadness,” Izzy offered. Brianna added, “My struggles.” Then they stepped forward and hurled their plates at the wall. ♦