The Renauds’ pastor showed up at their home within an hour of them finding their 14-year-old daughter, Jadzia, unresponsive in her bed.
When he walked through the front door, Yoli Renaud, Jadzia’s mother, ran into his arms, weeping.
“I prayed and prayed, and she didn’t come back,” she cried.
The Renauds, of Ferguson, Missouri, had been following pandemic safety protocol for months, wearing masks and keeping a distance from others. But everything changed when Jadzia died.
Suddenly, their house was filled with first responders, many of whom were not wearing masks. And as people learned of Jadzia’s death, they wanted to hug the grieving family members. The Renauds needed the comfort of the warm and genuine embraces of people who cared for them.
But during a pandemic, hugs can be dangerous.
Jadzia had been diagnosed with a genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome when she was a baby, but she had been taking medicine that controlled her symptoms and risks. During her freshman year of high school, she was active in the school’s theater program and mock trial team. She was looking forward to her quinceanera on Aug. 24. She had been laughing with her family the night before she went to bed for the last time.
In their shock, her parents, Josh and Yoli, also had to figure out how to bury their daughter without endangering anyone wanting to mourn with them.
“If it had been a few weeks earlier, we wouldn’t have been able to do the services,” Josh said. Every decision weighed on them. “We didn’t want anyone to get hurt or sick because we were doing this.”
No one from Yoli’s family in Bolivia could travel to the United States for the funeral, despite desperately wanting to say their farewells.
Death stalked us this spring and summer. A study published last month in JAMA Internal Medicine found that the number of deaths in the United States due to any cause increased by approximately 122,000 from March 1 to May 30. The increase is 28% higher than the reported number of COVID-19 deaths.
During this time of “excess deaths,” as described by the scientists, I kept hearing news of people dying. Some felt removed -- parents of people I had known growing up, but no longer stayed in touch with, or distant relatives.
But so many others hit closer -- an elderly neighbor, a child’s teacher, a co-worker’s daughter, a friend’s brother, my college best friend’s in-laws. It was hard to see through the cloud of shock and sadness each personal news alert brought.
There was a week in June when I attended five funerals in the space of three days. One was Jadzia’s. Her father and I have worked together at the Post-Dispatch for years.
I arrived a few minutes before the visitation began at the family’s church. I wore a mask and considered keeping my hands in my pockets to avoid instinctively hugging Josh and Yoli.
But when I saw them standing next to her casket, their three beautiful younger children lined up next to them, I felt grief tighten my chest.
I wrapped my arms around Yoli and my tears fell on my mask.
How else does one mother respond to another who just lost her baby?
I left before the church started to fill with mourners, and watched the service remotely.
Josh shared a story at the service about Jadzia spotting swamp milkweed plants for sale at the farmers market a few years ago. She convinced her mom to buy some because she knew they attracted monarch butterflies. The next summer, monarchs began to arrive; Yoli and the kids raised dozens of them from caterpillars found on the plants. Once, Jazdia found a dying butterfly with a broken wing. She was devastated. Her mother helped her bury the butterfly in front of the milkweeds.
Yoli told Jadzia a Bible verse to comfort her.
If not for the pandemic, Jadzia’s abuelita would have been there to bury her granddaughter and comfort her daughter. Her paternal great-grandmother would have been there. The Renauds would have taken a trip to be with their family in Texas. People would have filled their home to comfort them.
Instead, they read cards sent in the mail and tributes posted on social media. They took comfort in phone calls, limited visits and meals dropped off at their door.
Recently, Josh posted an update on Facebook at the one-month anniversary of his daughter’s death.
“We wish the circumstances were different: that there was no coronavirus threat, that we could welcome people into our home to reminisce and (for) fellowship. But please know that we have been deeply blessed by each act of kindness,” he wrote.
“We feel your love and support despite the distance.”