Surviving Trauma: Miami Resident Leans on Faith to Cope With Multiple COVID-19 Deaths

BY DANIEL GONZALEZ III
URBAN HEALTH MEDIA PROJECT

MIAMI — Over just a few months during the pandemic, Elbert Waters, 66, of Miami Lakes, lost five loved ones to COVID-19. 

First it was his cousin, a man in his early 70’s who fell ill at the height of the hospitalizations in New York City in the spring. 

The second, his nephew’s wife’s father, was a football coach for one of the largest schools in Palm Beach County and was ill for months before succumbing.

Then it was two lifelong friends; one he’d known since elementary school who got the disease in a hospital after having surgery, the other was in the hospital for almost three months and died before he could receive a new lung. 

The last, a family friend who worked in the state department of health, and passed the virus to her parents, who also died. 

The trauma of so much loss, compounded by the inability to mourn the deaths in any traditional way, has been significant.

Losing family to COVID-19 has hit Elbert Waters’ family hard. For Waters, who is Baptist, it’s faith that sees him through. Credit: Photo courtesy of Elbert Waters.

“I have seen it and felt it… makes me feel depressed,” said Waters, an urban planning consultant. 

Yet he still hears from people that the virus isn’t real, that it’s a hoax. Their denial, which Waters chalks up to being “totally ignorant,” is galling. 

“We’re in Florida, and we see the numbers who have been diagnosed and the people who have died,” he said. Since March there have been 864,000 COVID cases in Florida, with nearly 200,000 of those in Miami-Dade County, according to the Florida Department of Health. The numbers are growing everyday.

The trauma of the pandemic has made finding ways to cope and stay mentally healthy essential.

Faith helps family deal with trauma

For Waters, who is Baptist, it’s faith that sees him through. 

“We are a strong family of Christian faith; we trust in God to keep us safe and protected and that’s how we keep uplifted,” he said. “In my faith, we have prayer and church, and that provides our hope and resistance.”

Studies of those dealing with traumas such as surviving natural disasters, illness, the loss of loved ones and serious mental illness reveal that religion and spirituality — specifically connectedness with others, a relationship with a higher power and a belief that there is meaning in life — helps people cope.  

“A major way that people in North America cope with trauma and loss is by using some form of spirituality, faith, and religion,” said Donald Meichenbaum, research director of the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, and an expert on cognitive behavioral therapy. 

“Spirituality does not only help people find meaning, but also puts them in touch with a social support, either a higher power or their fellow human beings of that same faith,” Meichenbaum said.

For those who don’t practice a religion or identify as spiritual, Waters said there are other ways to find support and solace.

“Reach out to family members and friends and try to stay in contact,” Waters said. “I would suggest that they seek out group counseling — they need to find someone who would give them hope, strength and listen to them.”

Regardless of your religious background, Waters said, you still need to believe in yourself to survive.

“Not everyone is a Christian… I would say to them to keep the faith in themselves, and that we will [get] through the pandemic.”

Editor’s note: Daniel Gonzalez III is a 12th grade student at Miami Lakes Educational Center in Miami. He was a participant in the Urban Health Media Project’s workshop “Surviving and Thriving Despite Trauma” held in fall 2020. The workshop was funded by The National Council for Behavioral Health (www.thenationalcouncil.org).