Grief in the time of Coronavirus
What it’s like when someone dies but you can’t have a funeral
Two weeks ago, a woman named Sandra Skenandore died suddenly. She entered the crosswalk at South 1st Street and South Chase Avenue around 7:30pm, just after dark, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Moments later she was struck by a speeding SUV. The force of the impact threw her 100 feet — causing her to die immediately. The driver sped off, fleeing the scene.
She lived in an encampment under the bridge in one of the coldest cities in America, and was crossing the street to get to a bus ministry that was handing out food and basic supplies.
While local news outlets reported “A 36-year-old homeless woman was killed” the reality of her death hit my family like a freight train.
Sandra was my 14-year-old daughter Emma’s birth mom.
I met Sandra in 2010 on a family visitation when I was Emma’s foster mom. By then Emma was in Kindergarten and had already been in two placements over the course of 2 years. When she found out that Emma had been placed with a potentially adoptive family she began attending supervised visits regularly again — which is how we got to know each other.
When you’re a foster parent it can be hard to extend enough grace to the birth parents because they’re reduced to a folder of information provided by a social worker. On those pages you read about their worst moments as people and as parents. On the flip side, as a birth parent who has lost custody of your child, the foster family represents the system that is separating you from the little people you love the most.
Too often it’s an antagonistic relationship from day one.
I knew if there was tension the person who would suffer the most would be Emma. No matter what, Sandra was her mom and she’d always deeply love her.
At the time I didn’t know Sandra’s story but I believed whatever had brought her to this point must’ve been traumatic and painful. She had a genuine bond with Emma, but her life was a mess.
Over the years as she opened up, I got a glimpse into the tragedies that led to our lives becoming intertwined.
Sandra had been in foster care as a kid too, and was adopted by a caring family. After the loss of her dad she started coping with alcohol and entered a cycle of abusive relationships.
She was a proud member of the Ojibwe tribe and undoubtedly her personal struggles were compounded by systemic injustices and generational trauma.
Knowing that made me all the more empathetic because Native Americans have been treated so unethically. There’s a long and very painful history of unfairly removing kids from their parents for purely racist and xenophobic reasons.
“All I ever wanted was to be was a good mom who took care of her kids,” she told me one day with tears streaming down her face while we sat in my car outside of her dilapidated house. (A house we’d later find out had lead paint that tragically poisoned Emma’s little sister — turning a healthy toddler into a person with a lifelong intellectual disability.)
Emma was the oldest, but by then she’d had 3 more kids and it was clear she was in danger of losing her newborn baby due to unsafe living conditions.
I repeatedly told her that she was worthy of love. She deserved more than she seemed to believe. I offered to help her find a sober living program that would take her and the baby together.
“I think I can do it myself. I’m doing much better now,” she said.
In the early years when we lived in Milwaukee (before moving to San Francisco) she’d come to our house to hang out. She was invited to holidays. We hosted her son’s 1st birthday party
All the while though, I struggled with how to really help her. And I definitely felt the full range of emotions — including exasperation, anger, and compassion.
It was, admittedly, a complicated relationship.
She was my child’s birth mom. But she was also the source of so much of her pain.
After baby #4 she called me from the hospital and I begged her to get on long-term birth control — for her own sanity and for the kids she already had.
She promised she would, but then she backed out.
Over the subsequent years it was as if the spiral downward kept accelerating. She lost nearly all contact with her family — to the point that she didn’t even know her mom had died for many months. She ended up in and out of jail for various offenses. She had more babies — having 6 kids in total — none of whom she maintained custody of.
Her physical health declined dramatically in the last 18 months. Her addiction worsened. And the last couple of years she spent living under the bridge, burning trash to stay warm at night.
Even as I write this story I feel tremendous sadness and guilt.
The loss is heavy and so personal.
Sandra was a kind person and she didn’t deserve what became of her life. I’m not saying she was free of blame for choices she made — but a lot of systems failed her early on from what I can see.
The truth about adoption is it comes from enormous loss. While it’s an event we celebrate because it’s the day my daughter legally joined the family — it’s also a symbol that Emma’s family of origin is forever fractured.
There was a bittersweet moment when Sandra decided to relinquish her parental rights where she told me, “Please give Emma a good life. You’re her mom now.”
From then on, she referred to me as “mom” when talking to Emma. It was a gift I didn’t expect, but I will always cherish.
I promised her we’d always maintain a relationship and keep the doors open between them — which we did. 💜
No one is ever prepared to tell a child that one of their parents has died. It’s a terrifying and dizzying experience.
I’ll never forget the sound of Emma wailing “Nooooo!” or the feeling of her tears dropping into big puddles on my shoulder as the news settled in.
“It’s not fair that this happened to Emma. She’s already been through so much,” my 10-year-old son Jude said during that first night where we all sat around shell-shocked with grief.
“I know. I wish I could take it all away,” I said with my arms wrapped tightly around him. “All we can do is walk through the dark with her so she knows she’s not alone. Emma will never have to carry this by herself.”
Normally at a time like this you’d be able to meet up with others who are mourning. Exchange stories. Give hugs.
But while we’ve been grappling with this loss, the entire world has been upended — disrupting the normal grief process itself.
The funeral was rightly postponed due to social distancing. In its place, a feeling of uncertainty hangs in the air.
The man who ran Sandra over was arrested but we don’t know what comes next or when it’ll happen.
“When will life feel normal again?” is a question that grief brings up in all people — and in an era where nothing is normal, the feeling of moving forward is harder to find.
I suppose, in my own way, that’s why I’m writing this now. To say this happened — and it’s awful, and we’re finding a way through it, together.
While this loss is unique to us, it woke me up to the reality that millions of people will be grieving in so many different ways over the coming weeks and months as COVID-19 forces us to restrict our movements and change our daily lives.
In that time many small businesses will die. Retirement plans will be deferred. Elderly patients in nursing homes will be stuck alone in their rooms, forced to avoid eating in dining rooms to reduce their exposure to the Coronavirus.
While at the same time many of the things that bring us the most joy, like birthdays, events, vacations and weddings will be cancelled.
Even subtle losses in life can trigger a sense of grief so just imagine the emotional suffering that will be felt as a result of the fear, separation, illness, death, depression, anxiety, job loss, and financial devastation a pandemic brings.
In the very best of times grief is destabilizing.
So, how do we as a society collectively grieve and cope? How do we better support each other through times of shared crisis?
The cumulative effect of many small, loving acts is powerful.
In the past week for Emma it’s been gestures like an unexpected card, a bouquet of flowers, and bags of her favorite foods like Oreos and Takis. It’s been family games, movies, afternoon snuggles for no reason, and extra kisses at bedtime. It’s also been Fortnite V-bucks to buy new skins and watching ridiculous TikTok videos and funny YouTube videos together on Squad.
Grief is a series of loops, and it can be exhausting to ride the waves. But that’s what we’re called to do with each other. Now more than ever.
We’ll need to become more aware of the people in our lives and the challenges they’re facing in these unique times.
While I find the uncertainty of the near-term future a bit daunting due to ‘shelter in place’ orders, school closures and crazy financial markets, I also feel like it’s a great opportunity for humanity to get creative, resourceful and helpful… which is something we can do very well, when we want to.
If nothing else, COVID-19 shatters the rugged individualism that’s worshipped in American society. It’s clear that even our physical health is a mesh network that requires collective tending to.
We need each other.
Many of the ordinarily difficult things (like breakups, divorce, and unemployment) will be extraordinarily hard to navigate now.
But we can do it, together.
The little things really do add up. Texts to family members you haven’t seen in years. Dinner parties over video chat. Ordering surprise takeout dessert for friends. Singing pop songs on balconies with neighbors. Picking up groceries or medications for people in need.
These little acts of resilience help us feel seen and remind us that we can endure painful experiences. And that it’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry.
We are all likely to find ourselves grieving at some point in the coming months — it’s a normal response to what’s going on in the world.
When you see grief in someone else, be gentle with them. It’s hard on a person’s body, mind and spirit.
Get in the trenches with them, if you can. The unknown is less frightening if you’re holding hands with other people while finding your way through it.
You won’t be able to solve every problem or change everyone’s situation, but you’ll never regret acting with love.
And if you are having trouble coping with a big change in your life, it’s OK to say so. Pushing those feelings aside is not only ineffective, it will only be harder to move through.
Grief and loss enables us to understand life in a new way, and that can change the way you see yourself in the world — which doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Ends are also transitions to new beginnings.
A special thank you to Street Angels of Milwaukee
In learning about Sandra’s death I also learned about the organization that was handing out supplies that evening. They distribute basic survival items three nights a week in Milwaukee.
I’ve been so deeply touched by how they responded — at the scene and afterward. They set up a roadside memorial and the StreetLife Communities page wrote a moving post on Facebook:
She struggled with men. She struggled with self-image. She struggled with alcohol. But her primary struggle was with grinding poverty. She would get in somewhere, but without the needed supports, she’d be back out. We had known her out here off and on for about four years. Yes, she had demons. And yes, she would dance with them sometimes. But we all have chapters we don’t read out loud.
Bad stuff happens out here. Evil stuff happens, and I don’t use that word lightly. It happens because people out here are totally vulnerable: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. There are no real protections. Most of society sees the homeless and the addicted as something they need to be protected from. She was carrying more than she could bear ever since I’ve known her. And the predators of poverty were always moving around her looking for a way in. She’d had more than one close call, more than one terrible beating, and she’d seen her share of death…
She was somebody’s daughter, mother, sister, aunt. She had brilliant moments, victories, and dreams of a different life. There are so many things that can kill you when you’re this kind of vulnerable, totally vulnerable. Defenseless.
The vulnerable and excluded don’t live in the make believe world of what “should be”. They live in the world of “what is”, where people are crushed and knifed down, and the world just finds another way around the mess and yellow tape, thanking their god it wasn’t them or theirs. I am crippled by the gap between what ought to be and what is. So are we all. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish we could take the scratches out of permanent things. I wish so many things.
To our partners at Street Angels, we are with you and we love you. For First Responders, we are so grateful for you. For those who loved her, we pray for peace in your grief. For S, you are home safe now, in the light. Rest In Peace. For our city, may you never know the kind of vulnerability that this poor soul and our other outcasts live with every day. This is our community. We know their names.
Dan Grellinger, Shelly Sarasin and Max Ramsey: thank you for showing Sandra respect and kindness. You are the kind of heroes we need.