Family navigates grief after grandma's COVID death

Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Jessica Miller of Ireland holds a photograph of her grandmother, Clara Mae Frick, at her home on Tuesday. Her grandmother died of COVID-19.

By CHRISTINE STEPHENSON
cstephenson@dcherald.com

JASPER — Today, it was the dishes, she wrote.

The feel of the warm, soapy water transported Jessica Miller back to doing dishes with her grandmother as a child. She remembered how mamaw would always inspect every dish for filth while also keeping an eye on her grandchildren playing outside.

Tonight’s warm June night, with her own children playing on the deck and music drifting through the house, felt almost the same. It had been almost a month since her grandmother died due to COVID-19 complications.

Moments like this always remind Jessica of her grandmother. Today it was the dishes. Another day, it’s folding socks, and how her daughter, Tenley, would put the socks in piles just like mamaw did. Little things.

Jessica heard her son Maddox coming inside and wiped her tears. She didn’t want him to see her cry. Not because she’s ashamed of her grief, but because she never wants him to feel the same way she does now.

“Because this world is mean and crazy and will kick you hard, in the face, wait for you to get back up only to knock the wind from your lungs again,” she wrote in her journal that night. “But regardless, we always get back up if we try.

"And I will too.”

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May 31 is the last time Jessica saw her grandmother, Clara Mae Frick. It was the first time in weeks she was able to stand in the same room as her.

For weeks prior, Jessica and her family — many of Grandma Frick’s 11 children, 30 grandchildren and 56 great-grandchildren — had sufficed with FaceTime and waving through the window of the nursing home. They even threw a parade for her 88th birthday in May, where they made signs and sang from their cars.

Most of Jessica’s aunts and uncles didn’t wear masks to visit, as it wouldn’t be mandated in Indiana for another few months.

Grandma Frick ended up in the nursing home because of a fall, but then was also diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer. When doctors realized she couldn’t breathe well, either, she was rapid-tested for COVID-19. She was positive.

She was transferred to the emergency room. The ER staff didn’t think she had much time left, so they allowed one person to see her.

Jessica was always the one to relay information about mamaw to family members — she’d know more about the medical jargon, they’d say, even though she’s a social worker at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center and not a medical doctor.

Now she was the one to tell her grandmother that she was going to die.

Both masked, Jessica stared into her grandmother’s eyes for what felt like eternity, she wrote in her journal later. She wanted to wrap her arms around her frail shoulders but wasn’t allowed to touch her upper body.

Instead, she pulled the blanket over her grandmother’s feet. She rubbed her lower legs and thought about how those legs, those hips, were the comfiest place to nap as a child.

When visitation time was up, she told her she loved her.

“I want to believe she said it back, because she always did,” Jessica wrote. “But I can’t be sure.”

She left the room and sanitized the last touch of her grandmother from her hands.

Grandma Frick died June 5.

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Although there were only one or two confirmed COVID-19 cases at the nursing home when Frick was diagnosed, the home was on lockdown.

Those at greatest risk of debilitating illness from COVID-19 are people over 85, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic has disproportionately affected nursing home residents, so most have to be more cautious than ever before.

Gov. Eric Holcomb announced in October new steps to fight COVID-19 in nursing homes. At the time, nursing home residents accounted for more than half of Indiana’s deaths.

Grandma Frick was originally at Brookside Village for rehab in July after her fall and was then taken to The Timbers of Jasper and then Northwood Retirement Community.

As of late November, Brookside Village reported less than five resident cases and 10 staff cases in total; The Timbers of Jasper had zero resident cases or deaths and eight staff cases; and Northwood Retirement Community had 62 resident cases, 47 staff cases and eight resident deaths, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

Overall, more than 2,800 residents in Indiana long-term care facilities have died.

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Four-year-old Maddox and 7-year-old Tenley run around their home in Jasper aiming their new slingshot toys at each other. In between dodging the toys, turning on Puffin Rock on Netflix to distract Maddox and making sure Tenley doesn’t crawl onto the counter, Jessica recalls as many things about Grandma Frick she can.

Grandma Frick showed her love through cooking and conditioned her family to clean every Saturday. She never spoke poorly of anyone, unless they were a football referee, and never cursed, except sometimes the “s-word.” She basically never spent the night alone because her home was always full.

She was known for caring for all the neighborhood kids and piling an entire little league baseball team into the back of a coal truck to haul them to the drive-in movie theater. Almost everyone in Huntingburg knew her. Every kid in town was her kid.

Grandma Frick always took care of everyone before herself and would do whatever it took to make her people happy, Jessica says.

Tenley runs in the room to stand by her mom. Jessica remembers how her grandmother babysat Tenley every Tuesday from when she was born until she started school — that’s probably why they’re so alike, she thinks.

“What would you say about Grandma Frick?” Jessica asks.

“It sounds like she’s real fun,” Tenley says. “What’d you do with her?”

“All kinds of things.”

Jessica wants her kids to grow up to be just like Grandma Frick. She wants them to feel as safe in her arms as she felt in her grandmother’s. She wants them to care as deeply for others as she did.

“I hope I am half the woman my mamaw was,” Jessica once wrote in her journal after she died. “But I have a long way to go because she set that bar high.”




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