Desiree Morales, 2, blows a kiss to a photo of her father, Daniel, who passed away from COVID-19. Her mother, Erika, asked her two older children to help keep their father's memory alive for their youngest sister. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

A young family lost their husband and father to COVID-19. They are coping with grief as the holidays approach

Erika Morales and her four young children are facing the holiday season without a key member of the family at the table — husband and father Daniel Morales, a 39-year-old dialysis nurse who died of COVID-19 this summer.

Daniel Morales

Erika and their children did not get the chance to say goodbye after Daniel, who worked for DaVita Kidney Care, left for work to help in area hospitals in early July. Erika said he checked himself into the Hospitals of Providence Sierra Campus on July 6 after his final shift because he didn’t feel well and wanted to be extra cautious. 

He battled COVID-19 for nearly a month before dying in the hospital Aug. 4.

“You are supposed to be able to hold his hand and give him that comfort, and he never had that,” Erika, 42, said. “It’s a pain that is constant. I feel really bad. That’s kind of hard to move past from. People shouldnt have to grieve this way and it’s very sad and they shouldn’t have to suffer like that.”

Hundreds of El Paso families are grieving the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, and they will be joined by hundreds more in the next few weeks as the novel coronavirus continues to tear through the community. 

Erika, a surgical technician for the Hospitals of Providence Memorial Campus, said she hasn’t returned to work since her husband went into the hospital in July. She initially made the decision to take leave so that she could be available if her husband needed anything.

She is in the process of resigning, in part, because of the spike in cases and to put her children’s minds at ease.

Daniel and Erika Morales met in middle school in the 1990s and married in 2007. They have four children, ages 2 to 11. Erika said 11-year-old Danika, 9-year-old Dominik, 4-year-old Daniella and 2-year-old Desiree each have a little bit of their father’s personality.

“The baby, she is a little firecracker. She needs to be heard,” Erika said. “Daniella has a lot of my husband’s personality — she has a hearty laugh, very witty, very spunky — she has a lot of energy.”

Erika said Dominik and Danika are more shy, a trait she said their father also had if he didn’t know someone.

“He had a big personality. He was shy in his mannerisms sometimes, but once you broke his shell he was very sweet — he gave the best hugs,” Erika said. He was 6-foot-2 and stocky. “He was just a big teddy bear.”

Erika said the family received an outpouring of support from her family including her in-laws Minerva and Francisco Morales, who have been instrumental in helping with the kids. Her husband’s work family has also been supportive and started a fundraiser to help the family, she said.

“I’m very thankful and blessed,” Erika said.

Dominik Morales, 9, wears a Raiders hat in memory of his father, Daniel, as his sisters and mother play together. Daniel Morales, a registered nurse, passed away from COVID-19 in August. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Erika said she got her children enrolled in grief counseling after Daniel died.

“My kids were really scared,” Erika said. “One of the things they did share with one of their counselors was about me going back to work and knowing the last memory they had of their dad was him going to work and they never saw him again.”

Erika said the children have been adjusting, but still have days when they are more sad than others.

Danika said she is doing “OK.”

“What I loved about my dad is he was funny, he was kind and whenever you were having a bad day he would make you smile,” she said.

Dominik said he enjoyed tossing the football back and forth with his father in the backyard and the days the two of them would go shopping to get “boy stuff” together.

Erika said the kids help keep her keep moving forward, although she said she doesn’t always have it all together.

“It’s an ongoing situation — we have a difficult time — we are still grieving, it still feels very fresh,” Erika said.

No single way to grieve

Dr. Fabrizzio Delgado, division chief for the psychiatry consult service at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, said there is no right or wrong way to go through the grieving process.

Delgado said the stages of grief such as depression, denial, anger, acceptance and bargaining do not necessarily occur in the same order for everyone. For some people, the stages may be intertwined, he said.

“I would recommend for people to allow themselves to feel and to go through this process,” Delgado said.

He also recommended that people keep social connections open and stay in touch with friends and family, keep exercising and eating healthy and avoid drugs and excessive alcohol.

“Focus on the things that are within our control,” Delgado said.

Erika Morales remembers the last days of her husband’s illness. She talked to him every day on the phone or through Facetime, but at the end he was unable to speak. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Delgado also said it’s important to check in with friends and family who may be having a hard time.

“Reach out to loved ones — reach out and don’t hesitate to ask directly what is going on empathetically (and) in a non-judgemental manner,” Delgado said.

Erika said she and the children have been debating how to move forward for the upcoming holidays.

One idea she said they have discussed is cooking a Thanksgiving dinner together for the first time, since Danika and her father enjoyed watching cooking shows together.

Danika said they watched shows like “Chopped” and baking championships.

“It’s been a lot of thought processes on what to do,” Erika said.

She said she and her in-laws have also debated whether to have dinner together in an outdoor setting.

“We gather but that’s our normal. They help me watch the kids so it’s not something very different for us,” Erika said. “It’s not like we are going from never seeing each other to now let’s just all gather today or just for the holidays.”

The other option they have talked about is taking advantage of “nana and grandpa Uber eats,” where everyone cooks a dish and they deliver to each other and visit over Zoom.

“It’s just very sad because you are dealing with a pandemic, you are dealing with the loss of a family member. You are dealing with not being able to gather and that is just not our culture,” Erika said. “It’s been a lot of adjustments, but we also have to think of our safety first. I wouldn’t be doing my husband any justice if we weren’t careful.”

Helping children through loss

Laura Olague, CEO of the Children’s Grief Center of El Paso, said it’s important for children who are grieving to stay connected through the holiday season.

The nonprofit provides grief support services for children, teens and their families after the loss of a loved one.

Olague said grief counseling helps kids realize that they are not alone and allows a space for them to share their feelings without judgement. 

Olague said some adults who are grieving don’t want to acknowledge holidays, but kids need to feel that connection to the person they lost.

She said she recommends families do something to acknowledge the lost loved one or follow a tradition, put a picture of them on the table or celebrate the person in some way.

“We recommend that they go get the Christmas tree, however painful that is, and try to keep some sense of normalcy for the kids. Otherwise everybody falls into depression and that’s exactly what we are trying to avoid,” Olague said.

Beyond the holidays

Erika said she does her best to make sure the kids have some sense of “normal” even though their lives have significantly changed.

Dominik Morales, 9, comforts his mother, Erika, as she recalls the weeks that her husband was sick. One of the hardest parts, Erika said, was not being able to visit Daniel and be with him when he died. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Before the pandemic, Erika and Daniel both worked long hours and the children would be moving back and forth between school, day care, her in-laws and so on.

Erika said for the first few weeks after Daniel died, she and the kids stayed with her in-laws for a few weeks, but gradually returned home.

She is now able to stay with her children nearly all day every day. Erika said the kids have  adjusted well to online learning, although they get frustrated being “stuck at home.”

She said they still spend a lot of time with her in-laws, who remain an active part of their lives.

“Sometimes they will come and pick up the baby because they know it’s helpful for me not having the baby distracting the kids, not having the baby distract the 4-year-old,” Erika said.

She said the grandparents also drop off lunches for the children provided by the school.

“They are always helping,” Erika said.

While she said being able to be at home has been stabilizing for the kids, it can be difficult for her. Erika said she was used to Daniel working long hours, but he would always give his full attention and help with the children when he was home.

“It’s a little hard sometimes,” Erika said. “I’m always waiting for my husband to come through the door. So it’s a little hard in that manner.”

Cover photo: Desiree Morales, 2, blows a kiss to a photo of her father, Daniel, who passed away from COVID-19. Her mother, Erika, asked her three older children to help keep their father’s memory alive for their youngest sister. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...