'I Just Watched Him Cry' — Family Of COVID-19 Victim Grieves From A Distance | St. Louis Public Radio

'I Just Watched Him Cry' — Family Of COVID-19 Victim Grieves From A Distance

Mar 30, 2020

Hours after Pete DaPrato died from COVID-19, members of his family gathered at his home in O’Fallon, Missouri.

But they didn’t go inside.

Pete’s widow, Jackie, was in quarantine. And the other mourners wanted to follow health guidelines and maintain a healthy distance.

So they pulled up chairs in the driveway, spaced six to 10 feet apart from each other.

Pete’s daughter produced a couple of cans of Bud Light. His twin brother and son each took one, and cleaned it off with a disinfectant wipe. 

Like other families, the DePratos are grappling with the reality of death and mourning in the time of coronavirus. 

Patients die alone, isolated from their loved ones. And while the people left behind have an urge to be close, safety requires them to keep their distance.

Pete DaPrato had been fighting cancer for almost a year but was still working and enjoyed doing chores around the house. Over the course of a few days, he started showing COVID-19 symptoms, worsened quickly, and died.

“We sure thought the cancer would kill him,” said his wife, Jackie. “The cancer did not kill him. The virus, unfortunately, did.”

The DaPratos celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in November. They have two adult children they still referred to as “little Jackie” and “little Pete.” The elder DaPrato worked for Central Hardware for 20 years, until the local chain began downsizing its operations in 1993. Then he worked for Onsite Systems, his twin brother’s software company, for another 15 years. 

He tried to retire a few years ago but wasn’t the sort who sat still easily. So he’d been working a few days a week for the Lou Fusz auto dealership, driving cars from one location to another. 

About a year ago, doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer. He’d been through one round of chemotherapy and was doing well. It made him a bit more tired, and he gained weight. But he was still working and hadn’t slowed down much.

Just two weeks ago, Jackie took a photo of Pete as he painted the foyer in their home. 

“He was a strong, strong man, and he got everything done,” she said.

A rapid onset of illness

Two days after Jackie took that photo, Pete said he wasn’t feeling well. He had a mild, 99-degree fever. 

Jackie brought her husband to Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis, and things moved quickly. Doctors sent him next door to Barnes-Jewish Hospital for a coronavirus test, and he tested negative. Jackie spent several hours at his bedside. He had mild pneumonia, but she went home expecting that he’d recover. His doctors were upbeat, though they couldn’t promise anything.

The next day, the hospital stopped accepting visitors, to ward against the spread of the coronavirus. Early the following morning, Pete called his wife from bed and said he might be able to return home that day. Around noon, the hospital called Jackie with a very different message. 

In 36 hours, he’d gone from feeling fine to having mild pneumonia to having severe pneumonia and experiencing difficulty breathing. Doctors said it looked like he had COVID-19. They gave him another test, and this time he tested positive. They told Jackie that Pete had 24-48 hours to live.

“I just said, 'What are you people talking about?'” DaPrato said. “Gosh, he had just called me and said that maybe he could come home, because he wasn’t doing anything.” 

Doctors advised her to quarantine herself alone at home. She couldn’t visit her husband in person.

Pete’s ICU nurse set up a FaceTime video call with Jackie and their daughter, Jackie Hamel. He didn’t want his grandkids to see him in his condition, so they called the old-fashioned way. Later that day, Lauren called Jackie again to ask if she’d like to “FaceTime with him one more time,” DaPrato recalled.

They had a brief chat, and he fell asleep. The nurse asked Jackie if she wanted to watch him sleep with the video chat, but she said that would be “too much.” He died a few hours later. 

Pete and Jackie Daprato.
Credit DaPrato Family

A new way of grieving

With Jackie in quarantine, and the rest of the family trying to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and keep six feet away from each other, the family got a cruel taste of what it's like to grieve during the pandemic.

Jackie Hamel had the sad task of keeping people away from her grieving mother.

“I spoke with all my aunts, and they all wanted to come over. But they’re all old [and at high risk for COVID-19], they can’t come over. They just can’t. I kept saying no, no, no. And my one aunt said, 'I’m going to come, and I’m going to stand in the driveway,'” Hamel said. 

She called her brother Pete and asked him to head over to their mom’s house. Family members gathered in the driveway, setting up chairs there. “He came and sat in a chair 10 feet from my mom. We were in a box in my mom’s driveway, all about 10 feet away from each other,” Hamel said.

Jackie DaPrato said the physical distance has made it difficult for her family members to comfort each other. “There have been no hugs. None. And my son was so sad yesterday. His sister couldn’t go to him. I couldn’t go to him. We just watched him cry. That’s what we’ve done, is watch each other cry from afar.” 

The reality of quarantines and social distancing leaves few options for traditional funeral arrangements. Hamel said a funeral home offered the option of a “timed wake,” with mourners waiting outside in their cars and going in to pay their respects separately. 

A 25-year Air Force reservist, Pete DaPrato will be buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. But the family was told the facility is only conducting “drop-off burials.” The family will deliver his casket to the cemetery but will not be allowed to stay and watch it be interred. 

When social distancing guidelines are relaxed, the family plans to celebrate his life with a Catholic Mass and a luncheon.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Our priority is you. Support coverage that’s reliable, trustworthy and more essential than ever. Donate today.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org