ABOVE: Justise McGowan-Watts, 13, and her mother continue to mourn the death of her father, Steven Watts who died in May 2020 during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. Photograph courtesy of the McGowan-Webb family.
Sandra McGowan-Watts is still stunned at how quickly her life turned upside down.
“I go from being married and having a spouse, to being a widowed single mother in the course of a month,” said McGowan, 47, a doctor with a practice in suburban Chicago.
Her husband, Steven Watts, a 51-year-old Chicago bus driver, became sick in early April of 2020 from a disease that didn’t even have a name just 48 days earlier.
The coronavirus pandemic was in its initial stages. There was massive confusion and misinformation regarding the disease. Epidemiologists, health care officials and the Centers for Disease and Control were struggling to find answers to a virus that suddenly was killing thousands.
How does it spread? How deadly is it? What are the symptoms? How can we protect ourselves? Do masks work? What kinds of masks?
Watts had been taking care of his ill mother, who had been experiencing shortness of breath, an incessant dry cough and other symptoms, McGowan-Watts said. He soon began experiencing the same symptoms, she said.
“My husband got sick somewhere between visiting his mother and taking her to the hospital,” she said.
Watts died from COVID-19 on May 8. His mother, Lois Meeks, 68, died of the disease seven days earlier.
These days, McGowan-Watts finds herself in a strange new place. A single child, she has no siblings to lean on, though she has two cousins who she said are like sisters. Her parents are dead. For support, she looks to her 13-year-old daughter, Justise, a few friends, relatives and a Facebook support group for widowed Black women.
The McGowan-Watts family is one of thousands in the U.S., who have experienced the loss of one or more parents to COVID-19. According to the National Institute of Health, a child loses a parent or guardian in one of every four COVID deaths, a devastating consequence that is affecting the lives of an estimated 140,000 children.
McGowan-Watts said the loss of her husband has been extremely difficult for her, but it has been particularly hard on her daughter. The relationship her daughter had with her father was a special bond, she said.
“He was her person,” she said. “He was the person she went to. He would get her off the school bus. He would take her to get snacks after school and he would take her to gymnastics.”
Even before her father’s death, his illness began to affect Justise, McGowan-Watts said. Justise didn’t display those feelings until she overheard a telephone call from the hospital that delivered the news that her father’s health was deteriorating.
“I will never forget,” her mother said. “The one time I really saw her breakdown was the day the doctors called and told me my husband had some bleeding on the brain. As soon as I got off the phone, she looked at me and just started crying.”
The loss of her father has affected Justise in numerous ways, her mother said. She is in counseling to deal with the grief. The counselor advised her to quit her gymnastics classes because they were a consistent reminder of the loss of her father.
“It’s hard for her to do gymnastics, because she’s looking for him to be there, and she’s looking to see him in the audience,” her mother said. “So, she has now switched to swimming.”
Justise said the decision to switch was not hard.
“I’ve always been good at swimming, so I decided to give it a try,” she said.
She also attended Experience Camp at Camps Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods in Decatur, Michigan, where children talk about their feelings around grief and loss of a loved one.
As one escape, Justise now cooks for the family most nights, her mother said, something she often did with her father.
“Cooking has been one way Justise manages her grief,” her mother said. “She chose cooking because that’s something he did a lot. A lot of the times when I wasn’t home, he was cooking.
Justice has created her own cooking show on Facebook, Justise’s Cooking Tutorial.
With her braided hair down or in two buns, sometimes wearing her Girl Power t-shirt, sometimes in eyeglasses, Justise walks viewers through her family’s kitchen with a huge smile.
Her ingredients are prepped and laid out in front of her. She carefully identifies what is needed for the dish and shows her audience how to make meals from scratch.
She guides viewers through the preparation of three cheese macaroni and cheese, lobster macaroni and cheese, homemade chips and salsa, Mexican rice, chicken enchiladas, churros, Cornish hens, banana nut bread, strawberry shortcake in Mason jars, shrimp and grits, sweet potato pie, apple pie, glazed donuts, mozzarella sticks and more.
“I usually find my recipes online or in my dad’s and grandma’s recipe folder,” Justise said.
Still, signs are evident she is still wrestling with her father’s death. Already shy even before her father’s death, Justise can’t talk about him more than a year later, even in response to written questions.
McGowan-Watts is having her own difficulties dealing with her husband’s death. She always knew that on paper, they were an odd match – a medical doctor with a six-figure salary and a bus driver.
Family members, she said, used to joke that she was the Oprah Winfrey of the couple and her husband was the Stedman Graham, Winfrey’s longtime boyfriend, of the two.
In fact, her husband’s brother and cousin would joke, “What is she going to say about that, Stedman?” his wife said.
“That was the running joke.”
“Love goes deeper than what they are professionally, what they have financially,” she said. “Love is about caring for somebody, and he showed me how to love.”
She described him as a humorous, loving and supportive provider. She said he had a gregarious, warm personality. Whenever he was around, he had people laughing, she said. For her, she said, he was her “rock.”
The couple, both born and raised in Chicago, met in 2004 after they were introduced by McGowan-Watts’ cousin, who worked with Watts at the Chicago Transit Authority. They were married three years later.
When McGowan-Watts began the process of fulfilling her dream to own a practice, her husband was there, she said. He took a leave of absence from his job to supervise construction of the new building, McGowan Family Health and Wellness Center, in Flossmoor, Illinois.
McGowan-Watts said she knows how to be a good doctor, but her husband oversaw all labor when it came to their home and the construction of her practice.
After opening the practice, in 2018, McGowan Watts said, her husband would stop by the office and bring her lunch. When an employee called out sick, he would take a day off from his job to work in her office as the receptionist, answering the phone, checking patients in and socializing with them.
“Whether he was there fixing something or if my receptionist was off, he would come and sit at the front desk,” she said.
McGowan-Watts said her patients were affected by his death.
“My patients were sad too, because [they] knew him,” she said.
In the beginning, McGowan-Watts said it was hard going back into the office. Her husband was no longer there to share lunches with her and share her thoughts and concerns during the day.
She entered counseling and still goes. She said she is still haunted by how her husband died alone because of the hospital restrictions that would not allow families of loved ones to visit COVID-19 patients in the hospital.
“I felt like he’s dying, and he’s dying alone, and he probably thinks no one loves him,” she said. “Here it is, you have a man who has children, a father, a brother, and they’re not able to be at the hospital with him.”
McGowan-Watts said there are times when she asks herself, “How am I supposed to do this by myself?”
The answer, she said, usually comes from her daughter.
“I find strength from watching her,” she said. “If this 13-year-old can be strong, I have to do everything I can to keep things as close to normal as possible.”