By Sara Sidner, CNN
They heard their dad take his last breath.
With little warning four months ago, Alec and Gabriella’s father, Billy Walker — who rarely ever caught a cold — lay in the hospital in Portland, Oregon.
He had chosen not the get the Covid-19 vaccine: He was healthy, no medical problems. He figured he’d be fine if he contracted the coronavirus.
Then, he had a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side. It was induced by Covid-19, the doctors told his ex-wife, Sylvia.
His lungs were full of the virus. He needed emergency brain surgery. He got it. But his body couldn’t take it.
Sylvia knew Billy, just 44 years old, was dying. So, she gave their children — Alec, 12, and Gabriella, 14 — a choice. They wanted to be with him — even if they couldn’t be in the room.
The breathing tubes had been removed. Beside his bed, Alec and Gabriella’s mom put the phone on speaker. The kids listened from the other end of the line.
His words were hard to make out because of the stroke, Sylvia Walker said. But he recognized his children’s voices and managed to slur out the words, “I love you,” over and over and over again.
“Sitting there and listening to him … the grunting noises Daddy made,” Gabriella recalled. “When he told me he loved me … When he called me ‘Peanut’ …”
Before long, there was no sound at all.
Into that void has seeped a grief that’s touched the loved ones of more than 800,000 coronavirus victims in the United States, including a generation of children who have lost a parent or grandparent to the pandemic.
Months later, on the eve of their first Christmas without their dad, Alec and Gabriella continue to find ways to work through their pain, including by talking with other kids who are facing death honestly, helped by grown-ups committed to supporting them.
The effort may look different for each of the siblings and may last a long, long time. But it helps them move forward, even in a world with an empty chair at the table, a missing voice while presents are opened, a void they never expected so soon in their young lives.
‘He didn’t like being told what to do’
Sylvia and Billy Walker had always been best friends, even after their marriage didn’t work out. They talked daily. Went to family events together. Dinners. All the things best friends do. Their children had their dad and mom fully involved in their lives. And then he was gone.
“I have never experienced this kind of grief before,” Walker told CNN.
The children, of course, hadn’t either. No one they knew had. No one close to them had died, let alone one of the most important people in their lives.
Billy Walker hadn’t really let them in on how sick he was, his ex-wife said. He’d thought he had a bad cold for a few days. He was not vaccinated.
“There was no good reason why Billy didn’t get vaccinated. He just figured he was strong and healthy. I guess it was partly he didn’t like being told what to do,” Walker said.
And then, suddenly, he was too sick to make decisions for himself.
Alec did not want to see his dad sick.
“We have had, like, this friendship and so many memories upon it. I didn’t want to ruin it by seeing him in such a bad place,” Alec said. “We loved to joke. And laugh. And do things together.”
Gabriella wanted to remember her dad’s hilarious quirks. She loved to dance; he was terrible at it. But they would dance around at home, and she would tease him about his awkward moves.
That all ended around 7:15 p.m. on August 29. He died the night before Alec and Gabriella’s first day of school.
“They got up and went to school: Alec to middle school, Gabriella to high school,” Walker recalled through tears. “They did it because they knew that is what their dad would have wanted.”
‘No one knew what to say to me’
But at school, Gabriella found herself in a difficult spot.
“When I got there, what I really needed was to feel normal. But no one knew what to say to me,” she said. “I was suddenly in my own bubble, and it got worse. I felt isolated.”
Attending her father’s death by phone turned out to be a blessing with bitter tentacles. While they had been able to let him hear how much he was loved, those last moments began to replay in Gabriella’s mind like a spinning hamster wheel.
One question in particular from her peers made it hard for the 14-year-old to function.
“People constantly are asking you if you are OK. It’s a no. It’s always a no. My dad is gone. Forever,” she said.
Alec is the shy one, his mom said. He doesn’t like to talk about personal things to strangers.
His friends treated him normally at school, and it was a relief, he said. But he knew it was partly because many didn’t know his dad had just passed away. He had another buffer, too, against the most acute shock.
“Sports helped. It takes everything out of my head,” said Alec, who plays basketball, football and lacrosse. “I can forget about school. I can forget about what happened. I can just do that.”
Walker doesn’t hide her grief. And she wants her children to be able to express their pain however they need to. No secrets. No shame in moments of deep sorrow. No judgment in however long it takes for them to be OK again.
Soon, Alec and Gabriella decided they did need to talk about their dad, how they felt, how to make it through this.
Kids are resilient, but they need a guide
Walker found a place where they could pour out their pain and learn from other children trying to find a path through grief. The Dougy Center, a nonprofit in Portland, touted as the first center of its kind in the United States providing peer grief support groups for children and families.
It is named after a little boy named Dougy Turno. Facing terminal brain cancer, Dougy would tell other terminally ill kids in the hospital, “I’m gonna die. What do you think it will feel like?” said Brennan Wood, the center’s executive director.
Children are inquisitive. They are honest. And they have questions about grieving they need answered, she said.
“I have never heard a child say, ‘I am glad you lied to me about death. I’m glad you kept information from me. I’m glad you left me out of the conversation,'” Wood said. “Children are resilient, but they need a guide to help them be resilient. It does not happen in a vacuum.”
For the Walkers, the center has been a godsend.
“If you have never gone through it, you can never understand it. The peer and professional counseling has been and is still so incredibly important for our path to healing,” Walker said. “And there is no time limit for how long we can use their services.”
‘Things we wish you were here for’
The Walker kids have started expressing their grief in different ways. They want their dad to still be part of their lives, so every night before bed, they talk to him and tell him about their day as part of their prayers, their mom said.
Gabriella, her brother and their mom recently wrote a letter to Billy, and Gabriella put together a video with those words, plus pictures and videos of the good times. It began: “It’s been 113 days since you have been gone. Here are some things we wish you were here for.”
It included references to the four-wheelers they’d bought together so they could zoom around in nature, the good jokes Billy loved to tell, the restaurant where once they were the only ones laughing their butts off while people around them ate silently or stared at their phones.
It’s the simple moments they miss most. The hug. The smile. The terrible dancing that made them giggle.
As Christmas approached, the Walkers decided they needed to blow up old traditions. They couldn’t bear the empty chair, the silenced voice, the missing piece of their family puzzle.
“We know we have a lifetime to go without him, like, every Christmas. And that hurts so much,” Gabriella said.
Walker made a new plan this Christmas: “We will be at Disneyland. We figured we’d try going to ‘the happiest place on earth’ to try and relieve our grief.”
On this day and all days, she gives her kids this advice that she hopes might also comfort others facing a similar grief: “I tell my kids, ‘We are not OK, and that’s OK, but we are going to be OK.'”
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CNN’s Jeremy Harlan contributed to this report.