'Devastation is unreal': What life is like when a loved one dies of COVID and some still doubt

·4 min read

Julie Wallace and her daughter Mallory Dunlap are taking medication for anxiety and depression, and they don’t care who knows. Their grief is a testimony to Lewis Dunlap, to their love for him. It also telegraphs to the world what happens to a family when you lose someone to COVID-19.

Julie has encouraged their other daughter, 10-year-old Camille, to write down some stories about her father. “So you won’t forget him,” Julie said.

Camille has steadfastly refused. “I will never forget a minute of my life with my best friend,” she told her mother recently. Julie had to walk away so she could cry.

Camille does call Mallory regularly, via FaceTime. They talk, as only sisters can.

Julie has joined a Facebook group for people like her. “I am not unique,” she says. “I am no anomaly. I’m lucky in that I’ve only lost one person.”

Recently, after a friend shared U.S. COVID stats on her Facebook wall, another person referred to the deaths of more than 670,000 as “natural selection.” Mallory was in an online chat with people who knew about her father's death when someone posted, "COVID isn't real."

'He's dying': Mallory Dunlap's plea for help for the father who doted on her and how Lewis Dunlap fought to keep his family safe from COVID

Julie has reached her limit with such cruelty.

“I can’t anymore with this,” she says. “The devastation is unreal. I’m pushing back more. People will ask, ‘What other medical conditions did your husband have?’ Lew had a full physical just three weeks before he died. He had COVID.” She pauses. “I’m just tired. And I have a 10-year-old. And I want to be safe.”

Julie had talked to the country coroner soon after Lewis’ death. “He died of a blood clot. He was getting better, and then he was just gone.” The coroner told her there was nothing she could have done. She tries to believe him.

Julie Wallace, Lewis Dunlap and their daughters, Mallory and Camille.
Julie Wallace, Lewis Dunlap and their daughters, Mallory and Camille.

Julie says she hears a different Mallory when her daughter talks about work these days. “She used to come home complaining about how she had to remind people to wear their masks,” Julie says. “Now she’s telling people to leave if they’re unwilling to mask up.”

For months after her father’s death, Mallory was terrified of getting COVID-19, not for herself, but for Julie. “We could not expose my mother,” she says. “And we had to wait for the vaccine. When people say getting the vaccine is a ‘choice,’ it makes me angry. My father would have gotten the vaccine as soon as he could.”

USA TODAY Opinion: Subscribe to our newsletter for more analysis and insights

Like her father had done, Mallory was counting the days until she could be vaccinated. She and a few friends rushed for a chance to get it when word got out about a few doses that would soon expire if no one showed up for them.

The vaccine brought relief, but no joy.

“It was just close,” she says. “The timing, for Dad. It was so close.”

Julie is vaccinated, too. As the delta variant surges, she worries, again. A friend brought over a bunch of COVID tests. Each time, the test was negative, but Julie’s anxiety grew.

“I reached a point of hysteria,” she said. “I started to doubt the test results. Maybe they’re expired. Maybe I’ve forgotten how to use them.” She was scared for Camille. “I know I’m not going to lose a child. I know it’s irrational. That doesn’t mean it’s not my life.”

She can describe what she wants to hear from people after they discover Lewis died of COVID-19: “I want them to say, ‘We don’t want to lose any more, so I will do the right thing.’ That’s all I’m asking. Please do what you can to protect one another.”

A few weeks ago, Julie was standing in line to check into a hotel for one of Camille’s softball games on the road. The man standing in front of her was berating the desk clerk for insisting he wear a mask.

Looking for an ally, he turned to Julie.

“My husband died of COVID,” she told him. “Don’t talk to me without wearing a mask.”

He didn’t apologize for his behavior. He expressed no sympathy. Not so much as, “I’m sorry.”

But that man turned around, shut up and strapped on his mask.

It wasn’t enough. But in that moment, it was everything.

WANT TO HELP? Many have asked how to support the family. Here's one way.

USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What life is like after the COVID death of a loved one.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting