Families who lost loved ones to COVID find solace at grief support groups

Families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 face not only the universal grief of losing someone but also unique circumstances like not being able to attend funerals.
Some families are finding solace at a Red Bank grief center that was started by a woman who knows the pain they are going through herself.
“Every journey, the best things come from suffering. Unfortunately, growth comes from suffering,” says Shelia Martello, who founded Stephy’s Place.
Martello lost her husband Jim in the Sept. 11 attacks. Fifteen years later she founded Stephy’s Place, a free-of-charge grief and loss support center.
“When you go through traumatic events and you suffer through things, there’s an opportunity for growth. And if you miss that opportunity then you’re missing life,” she says.
This year, among the center’s 40 bereavement groups is a new one comprised solely of people who lost loved ones to the coronavirus – people like Leslie Havens whose husband Bill died on April 6.
“He was 56. He had no underlying health conditions,” Havens says.
And people like John McManus who lost his wife Laura also in April.
“Worst 11 days of my life, followed by the worst moment of my life when we lost her and I had to tell my kids,” he says.
Martello says that she sees the parallels between her experience as a 9/11 widow and theirs.
“Sept. 11, some people didn’t have funerals. Some people didn’t have bodies. When you don’t do that, it’s harder to grieve,” Martello says.
And she says that she sees herself in them in other ways too – fighting through the early stages of grief, facing an uncertain future. That she found purpose in that loss by founding Stephy’s Place 15 years later shows how long the process can be. And the places that grief and healing can take you.
“Everyone does get to a point where you have a choice. In the beginning, you have no choice. You just live every day and try to get by,” she says. “But eventually – and the time is different for everyone – you get to a fork in the road. And we say you can choose then bitter or better.”
For John McManus and Leslie Havens, the loss is still fresh. That fork in the road is still far away. For example, Havens says that she still finds it very difficult when she sees people who are not taking the pandemic seriously.
But at least for McManus and Havens and many more like them, there is someone who has been down that road before and can guide them through it.
“I choose better. Some people choose bitter. But at Stephy’s Place, we try to guide people toward that fork, and help them choose better,” Martello says.
Stephy's Place is named after a friend of Martello's who died of cancer. Since the pandemic began, all Stephy's Place bereavement groups have been meeting virtually.