(AP) – Sitting around a picnic table, a group of girls is encouraged to write down whatever they want on strips of paper. Six-year-old Sofia Scala asks, “Can we write Dad?” Moments later, she scribbles “Daddy” in pink marker.
The art therapy session is held every week at Emma’s Place in the New York City borough of Staten Island for children ages six to 10 years old. The grief center was founded in 2013 to help families through the grieving process, which now includes children talking about losing a loved one due to the coronavirus.
“We woke up,” Sofia began, and her mother, Angela Conti, continued, “and then one day Daddy was sick and then he was gone.”
Conti says her husband, Jason Scala, was a healthy 47-year-old who got sick early in the pandemic and deteriorated quickly. He died in late April from complications of COVID-19. After his death, Conti says she and her two daughters were in quarantine because one of her kids had also tested positive for the coronavirus.
“We were isolated for about six weeks after it happened, which was also hard on them because when a tragedy happens, you have your loved one next to you or you have your friends next to you or your teachers next to you. But it was just us,” says Conti.
Grief counselors say the pandemic has created additional trauma for people mourning a loved one. Many have been unable to keep a bedside vigil or say their final goodbyes at the hospital. Memorial services and funerals have all been curtailed. Support groups specific to COVID-19 loss have sprung up across the country.
Carolyn Oglio –Taverner, the co-founder of Emma’s Place, says the virus has also taken away children’s way of life – going to school, seeing their friends, or playing sports. She says art therapy gives them a chance to show their emotions, especially when they may not have the words for it. “There’s something very powerful about putting something down concretely on paper that not only allows them to express the loss, but almost allows them to come face to face with it and begin coping with it.”
Conti is in the process of moving from Jersey City, New Jersey, to live with her parents on Staten Island to give her daughters some stability as she goes to work. She knows the world is closing in on the grim milestone of one million deaths, but that’s not what she’s focused on.
“The number to me is the one death,” Conti said wiping away tears as Sofia reached over to give her mom a hug.