Without Gatherings, Large Funerals, COVID-19 Survivors Grieve Alone as the Death Toll Grows

Story by Larry Altman

Jamie Szabadi last spoke to her husband, Jack Ohringer, over an iPad on his 75th birthday. A nurse connected them. She was home. He was in intensive care.

“I got to sing him ‘Happy Birthday’ and — it was very, very hard — he was able to tell me that he loved me two times,” Jamie said. “I’m just so lucky that I have that. That’s my final memory.”

Jack died two days later of COVID-19 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. His wife and stepchildren were not allowed to be near him in his final days or after he was gone.

“They don’t let you see the body,” Jamie said. “They don’t let you identify the body. I haven’t been able to get his personal belongings. It’s the most horrible thing and everything is so, so, so complicated.”

On May 25, Jack’s name was placed on a Los Angeles County Public Health Department list with the other 26 people who died from COVID-19 that day. At the time, it brought the county total to 2,182. By Friday, June 26, the official toll reached 3,269, and nearly 122,000 nationwide.

“Once it hits your doorstep like that, those numbers are staggering,” Jamie said. “They are heartbreaking…That’s (122,000) families and friends and co-workers. It’s just unbearable.”

Jamie, like so many other survivors of COVID-19 victims, is dealing with the natural grief that follows a loved one’s death. But the virus made things different. She was not allowed to hold her husband’s hand when he died. She was not allowed to hold the large funeral she believes her husband deserved with hundreds of his friends and relatives paying their respects.

No one gathered for a reception in her home after just a dozen people were allowed to stand 6 feet apart at a quick graveside service. She was not able to observe the Jewish tradition called sitting shiva, greeting guests and saying prayers in her living room.

“Everything in this is contactless. It really makes you so alone,” Jamie said. “He was my soulmate. He was my partner. That’s who I could hug and, thank God, my own two children. It’s just terrible.”

While the death toll grows, public attention has drifted to controversies over wearing masks, reigniting the economy, paying the rent and evicting tenants. Protests for racial justice and the November presidential election have dominated the news.

Unlike public ceremonies and services to mourn the dead following 9/11, mass shootings and other tragedies, President Donald Trump has not made a speech to unite the nation and no large public gatherings have been allowed.

Many survivors of those lost feel forgotten, their deceased loved ones ignored or treated as statistics.

“They are simply reflecting and delivering numbers — not people who lived, people who loved, people who had friends or relatives,” said Sal Neri, whose wife, Eileen, died March 23 of COVID-19 following seven years with Alzheimer’s disease. “All these people — they are young people, middle-aged people, old people. But what I’m hearing on the news is numbers….

“A human being has been lost,” he continued. “They are not telling me Mary Jane had a family of three and grandparents and died of this terrible virus at the age of 23 and during her life she was involved in church and charity matters. I’m not hearing that. I’m hearing she was No. 5.”

SoCal Connected contacted survivors of five COVID-19 victims to represent those lost: Jack Ohringer, developer and contractor for homes atop the Hollywood Hills; Rose Salamone, a first-generation American known for her delicious Italian cooking; Eva Sena, a disabled mother who loved listening to oldies; Ana D. Ledea, a Cuban immigrant so skilled at designing clothes, the Jackson 5 danced in her frilly outfits, and Larry Lerner, an assistant director on dozens of television shows and movies.

“It just turned on him so fast,” said wife Lynne Lerner, who is still resting at home from her own diagnosis with COVID-19. “All those stupid people who say, ‘this isn’t real,’ ‘it’s not that bad,’ ‘hardly anybody gets it’ — if they could see what I saw, they would be more careful…. He was such a good guy, to be so unlucky. He is all I had. I have nobody else.”

Sick when her husband died April 1, Lynne couldn’t shop for a coffin or organize a funeral, even one done online. Pressed to do something to remove his body from the hospital, Lynne consented to having him cremated. His remains are in an urn in the living room, where his wife continues to recover, hoping one day to give him a memorial service.

Funerals are an important ritual for healing, said David Kessler, author of “Finding Meaning: The Sixth State of Grief” and other books on mourning. Many survivors of COVID-19 victims held no services because of public health restrictions. Some watched from home on FaceTime as a priest or rabbi said prayers in their place. Some attended limited services at the gravesite with about 10 family members and friends spaced 6 feet apart.

“Grief needs to be witnessed,” Kessler said. “Think about the rituals of a funeral, of a memorial. There is a business. There is a pacing. There is a creativity that’s brought to mark that death. There’s the organization of it. It’s almost like an orchestra coming together.”

Nationally, there has been a notable lack of ceremonies and speeches. He suggested Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti designate a half-day to mourn, asking everybody to fly their flags at half-staff because visual symbols are important. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Kessler said, should hold a state day of mourning. He said he expected nothing from Trump.

Kessler compared the likely eventual death toll to hundreds of jetliners crashing.

“We would be in a state of shock and chaos and numbness and the funerals would be overpowering,” he said. “The visuals would be horrific — and we’ve got nothing.”

To help those in mourning, for COVID-19 survivors and others, Kessler’s online support group is available free at Facebook.com/groups/DavidKessler.

“I see the people in there whose grief didn’t get witnesses, who are sitting there at home alone. There were no casseroles. No one came by,” he said. “Grief is isolating on a good day in a regular world. These people have had to isolate in isolation, and on top of that, now they are in a world where the stock market is up, we’re all reopening…. They are like, ‘Doesn’t anyone see us? We are not going back to our lives next week.'”

Jack Ohringer

Jack Ohringer with his wife, Jamie Szabadi | Courtesy Jamie Szabadi​

When Jamie Szabadi hired a contractor to work on her Valley Village home years ago, she got more than a porch out of the deal.

She got a husband.

“We were in the middle of the project in the office,” Jamie recalled. “He squished up next to me and he said… ‘Would you ever consider going on a date?’ I didn’t even know he had been flirting with me.”

After a while, Jamie and Jack individually told their therapists about their new relationships. Neither knew they were seeing the same therapist, who advised them individually what a good idea it would be to continue.

“He was my soulmate,” Jamie said. “I am so blessed because some people never get to know that true love.”

Born May 23, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jack Friedman Ohringer died May 25, 2020, two days after turning 75. Not thrilled with working in his parents’ delicatessen products business, he moved to California with a friend after serving in the Coast Guard.

Originally a stockbroker, he shifted to managing properties, including a shopping center in El Monte and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. He managed the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square when it was an open mall, worked on the construction to enclose it, and helped to rebuild it after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

As a contractor and developer, he specialized in hillsides. In the last few years, he sold eight vacant lots on Brier Drive off Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills to create three enormous homes.

“He constructed at least four houses on that street from scratch and then he remodeled every other darn house on the block,” his wife said. “Everybody knew Jack. The whole street and the whole area.”

Jack became father to Jamie’s two stepchildren, loved to dance and was passionate about boating and water-skiing.

Jamie does not know how her husband contracted COVID-19. A diabetic, he also had heart issues and was on dialysis. He began feeling tired a few days before Mother’s Day, when he required an ambulance and was placed on a ventilator May 12, the couple’s 13th anniversary. On May 23 — his birthday — a nurse held an iPad for him so the couple could communicate through FaceTime. She sang “Happy Birthday.” He told her he loved her.

He died two days later.

“He was so sweet,” his wife said. “He had this sparkle in his eyes, a bounce in his step. He got along with everybody. He was an incredible, loving, kind man.”

 

Eva Sena

Eva Sena and her son, Anthony | Courtesy Anthony Sena

Eva Sena meant everything to her son, Anthony.

Born in East Los Angeles, she loved bringing friends over to listen to her 45s, especially her favorite song, “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye, and works by Al Green, El Chicano, Malo and Nirvana. Her “oldies but goodies,” she would say.

Plagued with physical and mental illnesses that resulted in hospitalizations during her life, Eva spent her latter years living with her son and in a nursing home.

“I took care of my mom since age 27,” Anthony said. “My life was on hold.”

When he had his own health issues in his 50s, Anthony placed her in a nursing home. He called and visited regularly, taking her weekly to services and Bible studies at Newsong L.A. Christian Church in Culver City. He’d pick her up on Fridays, and they’d go to Fisherman’s Village in Marina del Rey to watch a jazz band.

Anthony tried to visit his mother in person on Valentine’s Day, but the facility had locked down. She later called him, saying she was in pain and didn’t feel well, but telling her son, “I love you.”

In the days that followed, Eva’s vital signs dropped, she was diagnosed with COVID-19, taken to a hospital and placed in intensive care. Unable to see her, Anthony would call the nurse’s station, getting to talk to her on the phone. She told him she loved him and that she had “a lot of wires in me.”

Doctors allowed Anthony to see her on April 22 and 23 in the middle of the night. Wearing a jumpsuit, booties, a face mask, gloves and other protective equipment, he looked through a window into the room where his mother was kept on a ventilator in a glass isolation box.

“I was able to see my mom,” Anthony said. “I stood there for 10 minutes until they kicked me out.”

Doctors suggested turning off the machines keeping his mother alive on April 24. Anthony asked that a chaplain be at her bedside to say a prayer. Anthony and his fiancee listened on the phone.

“We did a prayer at noon at that time,” Anthony said. “I guess they decreased her medication so she could slowly go with Christ.”

Eva Sena was 72.

“She was my everything,” Anthony said. “She provided the culture of who I am as an individual — respect, honor, loyalty. ‘And always when in doubt, give it up to the Lord.'”

Anthony planted a flower garden in his backyard as a memorial. He was not able to hold a service and is trying to raise money to pay for it.

“I’m a believer in Christ but this is horrible,” he said. “I wouldn’t want this on anyone. It’s one of those things that’s too much to handle.”

Her family made a YouTube video in tribute.

 

Larry Lerner

Larry and his wife, Lynne Lerner | Courtesy Lynne Lerner

Larry and Lynne Lerner were set to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary in June with a cruise to begin near Rome. Larry planned to drive a Ferrari in Monaco on their anniversary.

“He was so nice,” Lynne said. “He never got mad. He liked everybody. It was just a lot of fun.”

Larry and Lynne met when she was an extra and he was an assistant director on a television production. Nothing happened then, but they ran into each other about five years later on another show and began dating.

“We used to go to restaurants and screenings,” Lynne said. “I was in SAG and he was in the Directors Guild. We used to do that all the time.”

Throughout the years, Larry worked as a first assistant director on a variety of episodic television shows and TV movies, feature films and streaming series. Most recently he worked on a show called “Royalties” for Quibi. According to his own IMDB profile, his credits include “Ambitions” on OWN, “Game Silence” on NBC, “The Man in the High Castle” on Amazon, “The Chi” on Showtime and “Drop Dead Diva” on Lifetime.

“He would go maybe two or three shows in a row and then be off several months,” Lynne said. “I thought he should have retired. He wanted to work until he died. He loved work.”

Together, they adopted abused pit bulls and trained them.

Both became ill in mid-March a couple days after a shopping trip. Lynne, 68, felt severely fatigued. Larry developed a dry cough. Each worsened.

Larry fell down at home March 22, and asked his wife to call 911. Larry’s temperature was 104 degrees. Paramedics also checked Lynne, who was struggling to breathe. Both went to Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys.

In the hospital, Larry and Lynne communicated over FaceTime from their rooms.

“We just both assumed we were there to get a little care before coming home,” Lynne said.

Lynne spent three days in the hospital, but Larry was placed on a ventilator in the ICU. Doctors treated him with hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug promoted by Trump for treating COVID-19 amid growing evidence it doesn’t work and could cause serious side effects.

“I would call every day,” Lynne said. “They would say, ‘We are hoping to see something good.’ ‘He’s hanging in there,’ ‘No change.'”

Nine days later, Larry’s heart stopped. He was 71.

Lynne, 68, would like to hold a memorial service when she recovers, and plans to move back East to be with her family.

“He had so many friends,” his wife said. “He was such a people person. He loved people.”

Friends are raising money to help Lynne Lerner at https://www.gofundme.com/f/larrylerner.

Rose Salamone

At 94 years old, Rose Salamone seemed to have several more years left in her. Just a month before the COVID-19 outbreak, she went bowling.

“Very kind, very sweet, never wanted to put you out for anything,” said her daughter, Sandie Young. “Her needs were always last. Your needs were first.”

A first-generation American born to Italian immigrants, Rose grew up during the Depression in the small town of Easton, Pennsylvania. She knew her eventual husband, Santo Salamone, growing up and married him when he was discharged from the Army following World War II.

Rose kept the house and looked after their four children while Santo worked a variety of jobs. Eventually, they moved to California, where they were told by relatives the weather was so much like Italy. They settled in North Hollywood. Santo worked for Lockheed and the Post Office for 42 years.

Rose spent most of her life caring for her children and husband, and became grandmother to seven, and great grandmother to four. She went to work for the first time as a receptionist when she was 55 years old to help one of her daughters pay for college.

“Everybody knew Rose because Rose made the best Italian food,” daughter Sandie said. “She would make homemade raviolis, homemade eggplant parmesan. She would make her own cream puffs. Everything was from scratch.

“We were very healthy,” Sandie said. “Nothing came out of a box or a bag.”

Rose and Santo’s 66-year marriage ended when he died five years ago. Rose moved into an assisted living center in Santa Clarita, which she considered a cruise ship on land with linen tablecloths, leather-bound menus, entertainment and trips. She made several friends and attended St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Church.

Safer-at-home orders prevented Rose’s daughter and son-in-law Bill Young from visiting after March 16.

With some memory issues, Rose was confused, not understanding why her children could not come.

Rose had a slight fever and shortness of breath April 5. Within a few days, tests showed she had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Following a stay in isolation at the assisted living center, she was taken to Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital. Over the phone, she told her daughter she was “sick as a dog.”

In the final hours of her life, Rose lay with her eyes closed as family members spoke to her over FaceTime. She died late on the Saturday before Easter.

 

Ana D. Ledea

Ana D. Ledea at about 20 years old on a beach | Courtesy Anna Abrante

“If God wills it,” Ana D. Ledea used to tell her friends about whether she could reach 100 years old.

The longtime Glendale resident died on Mother’s Day, May 10 after contracting COVID-19 while recovering from her second heart attack. She was 97.

Born April 24, 1923 in Holguin, Cuba, Ana was an expert seamstress and clothes designer, whose skills with sequins and frills were perfect for the 1970s. Performers such as country singer Charlie Rich, Della Reese and the Jackson 5 wore her costumes onstage, her daughter recalls.

A beauty queen in her teen years, Ana was one of eight girls and a brother. Already married and divorced when Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, she left a son behind with family in 1959 and traveled to the United States, thinking she would be able to return for her son. Ana would not see her son again until the 1980s.

She met her second husband, Luis Abrante, in Miami and they made their way to Southern California, settling in the Atwater district and eventually Glendale. Daughter Anna Abrante was born in 1963. The couple divorced four years later.

“I was raised by her as a single parent,” Anna said. “It was just her and me and I would visit my dad and stepmom.”

Ana took her sewing skills to the Los Angeles garment district, where her ability to conceptualize an outfit and cut patterns drew attention. Along the way, a man who ordered costumes for celebrities hired her.

Ana’s daughter remembers Della Reese coming to their home and playing with her daughter. She remembers going to Reese’s home in the Hollywood Hills with her mother.

“I have a memory of being in a warehouse while my mom was hurrying with a deadline for a costume,” Anna said.

Her mother kept a photo of the Jackson 5 in her home, possibly because they were wearing her designs, Anna said.

“At one point she drew an arrow to Michael to point out Michael,” the daughter said.

At home, Ana often made clothes for her friends and family, including her daughter’s frilly, yellow backless gown for her junior high school prom. Often she told friends she would be glad to make them a dress instead of them going out and buying.

When she decided to retire at 65, Ana moved to Miami to live near relatives. Her son and his family had moved there and became the focus of her retirement. Ana married briefly at 76, but the marriage didn’t last long.

In the end, Ana survived a broken hip and two heart attacks, but she contracted COVID-19 while recovering in a care home. Even then, it took nearly two weeks for pneumonia to take her life in the hospital.

By the time she died, Ana was a great-grandmother to too many children to count in the United States and Cuba, her daughter said.

“She’s a strong woman,” her daughter said. “You wouldn’t believe what my mom was like.”