The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Covid killed her disabled brother, paralyzing her with guilt. Could she recover?

Jeneffer Estampador Haynes sits in the bedroom of her brother, John, in Maryland. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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The panic attacks often came without warning.

Jeneffer Estampador Haynes would be at home, scrolling through Facebook or checking the news, when the thought of her brother, John Estampador, surfaced. Suddenly, all the guilt and sadness came rushing back.

Months after her brother’s death from covid-19, Jeneffer’s grief still consumed her, keeping her life at a standstill. Her Catholic father consoled himself with the thought of John in heaven. Her mother visited his grave every day. Her sister threw herself into the busyness of raising two kids.

But Jeneffer, 37, remained stuck. “When I lost him, it was like I lost myself,” she said recently, as she stood in her brother’s old room at their family home in Gaithersburg, Md.

Covid killed her husband. Now it’s taking the only home her kids have known.

John, 30, had Down syndrome and lived in their parents’ home his entire life. The fishing rod he loved still lay propped against his bed. His “Power Ranger” DVDs remained on the shelf.

All around her, the world was eager to push past the pandemic that has killed more than 785,000 Americans. Clinics now offered third shots of the vaccines her brother never got a chance to receive. And even as a new variant of the virus was spreading, families were making plans to spend the holidays together.

“Everyone keeps telling me to move on,” Jeneffer said, looking around the room at the last remaining signs of her brother’s existence. For months, she had struggled to find a way to do so without feeling like she was leaving him behind.

She’d taken a four-month leave from her job as an executive assistant to deal with her pain and suicidal thoughts. She’d sought medical help and joined daily group therapy. She’d volunteered for several covid support groups.

But it often felt like she was still fumbling for a path out of the darkness. Jeneffer’s parents, wanting a fresh start, had put their house on the market, and the room she stood in would soon be packed up. Jeneffer’s bosses were asking her to return to work within weeks.

“I don’t know if I’m ready,” she said, shaking her head. Soon, she knew, she would have no choice.

‘Being powerless’

In the two years since the coronavirus emerged, its toll has devastated hundreds of thousands of families. Just as the virus attacked some severely and left others relatively unscathed, the grief it unleashed was similarly uneven in its impact. Those hardest hit have often continued to wrestle with spiraling depression, anxiety and trauma more than a year later.

For Jeneffer, her younger brother influenced every part of her life. Her earliest memory as a 6-year-old was seeing him in the hospital after his premature birth. When she reached inside his glass-enclosed bassinet and felt her baby brother grip her finger, she remembers feeling purpose, a responsibility to protect this innocent being at all cost.

In college, Jeneffer majored in psychology to try to understand John, who couldn’t speak because of his Down syndrome. She married her husband after she saw his kindness toward her brother. She looked for jobs in the D.C. suburbs to stay nearby.

She was working as an executive assistant at the vaccine company Novavax when the pandemic hit. She reported directly to the head of research and development as the company raced to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. Her own family got infected in January just as the first vaccines were being distributed to the elderly and infirm.

Jeneffer was the only one who could go with her brother to the hospital. Alone, she watched through glass as his runny nose turned into labored breathing and asthmatic attacks. The day before he died, the nurses finally let her hold his hand as she pleaded, “Don’t leave me. I’m begging you.”

A few weeks after his funeral, she returned to the office and threw herself into the work. Her boss — still working at breakneck speed on vaccines — asked her to pore over news reports every day on new variants of the virus and compile daily summaries on the death toll.

She made it through the spring, but began crying at her desk and struggling to breathe. Her mind often fixated on what she could have done to save John’s life.

She should have spirited John away to someplace like New Zealand, where pandemic restrictions were being taken far more seriously than in the United States. Maybe she should have somehow gotten a vial of unapproved vaccine and given it to him.

“It wasn’t just guilt. It was the feeling of being powerless and hopeless,” Jeneffer said. She worried about losing her husband or other family members to the virus.

By summer, she was struggling to get out of bed. She fantasized about going back to sleep and never having to wake up again. While driving to work, she imagined the relief of someone hitting her car, just to be rid of the pain.

The thoughts scared her enough that she took a medical leave from her job in July. She’d spent every day since then working on her grief, anxiety and depression.

Each weekday morning, she attended an intensive outpatient program alongside others struggling with mental health. She was also meeting one on one with a therapist, who told her to record herself recounting the exact moment she learned her brother died — narrating as if it were happening in real time — and to listen to that recording every day.

It took her weeks to be able to record anything without sobbing uncontrollably. Listening to it, usually after lunch in a quiet corner of the house, almost always sent her into crying jags.

Then her therapist told her to imagine herself rewinding that recorded tape and putting it away, asserting control over that moment and choosing when to allow herself to feel those feelings.

“I’m trying to set up boundaries,” she said. “It doesn’t always work, but I’m trying.”

‘Our angel’

In her spare time, Jeneffer channeled her energy into keeping her brother’s memory alive. That’s how she found herself writing the names of those killed by covid-19 on little white flags.

The hundreds of thousands of white flags were being planted on the National Mall, part of a massive art memorial intended to convey the awful toll of the pandemic and to recognize the loss of so many families.

On the last day before the permit expired and the memorial would have to be taken down, Jeneffer sat with other volunteers transcribing last-minute names and messages sent in by families from around the country.

“Walter Brookshire. 10/17/54 to 3/7/21. Honey, I miss you so much it hurts.”

“Gerald Glendenning. Strong & fearless — funny & forever young.”

“Patricia M. Firieza. She died protecting her family. She was robbed of her life and a dignified death. Mom you deserved so much better.”

Jeneffer and the volunteers wrote quickly and quietly, their work punctuated by the occasional sniffle or gasp.

“I can’t believe how emotionally charged these messages are,” said the woman next to Jeneffer, tearing up as she recounted her mother’s death the year before.

“I know,” Jeneffer nodded. “It’s makes you realize you’re not alone. Honestly, volunteering for stuff like this is the only thing that’s gotten me through it.”

During their last trip to John’s grave, her mom, Roselyn, told her, “Your brother would want you to be happy. He would want you to live your life.”

Instead, she was commemorating John’s life everywhere she could. She had his name painted on rocks people were leaving on a memorial trail in Irving, Tex. She created a Facebook account in his name so she could keep talking to him and about him.

“Today you would have been showered with gifts,” she posted on his birthday. “We would’ve sang happy birthday and you would’ve blown out 31 candles +1 for good luck. Today mom would’ve cooked her famous lumpia and pancit, and we’d sit around the table laughing … Instead, we will gather and we will celebrate your life, and we will cry today, John John.”

She’d joined a Facebook group called “Maryland Vaccine Hunters” that was helping the elderly last spring when shots were still hard to come by. She secured appointments for more than 380 people, waking up at 6 a.m. to scour pharmacy websites. She tagged her appointments “#jabs4johnjohn,” dedicating each small victory against the virus to him.

It felt like a way to keep him alive, to remind the world who he was and how much he meant. But inevitably, each project would come to an end. Vaccines became plentiful. The many memorials — temporarily allowed by local governments or businesses — would be taken down.

One group Jeneffer joined had persuaded a D.C. cafe to let them put up personalized yellow hearts on a wall to memorialize the names of local covid victims. When it came time in August to take them down, Jeneffer found herself in tears.

The sticky tack they used to hang the hearts had hardened, and there was no way to take them down without tearing them apart. Jeneffer still kept her brother’s shredded paper heart, along with hundreds of others, in a storage box in her basement.

And even as she inscribed names on the last of the 700,000 white flags for the National Mall memorial, she knew they too would be have to be removed. She had written out John’s white flag days earlier and personally planted it in one of the sections closest to the Washington Monument.

“John Estampador. To our candle bandit, our angel, we will forever miss and love you.”

It was an inside joke to him, because he loved blowing out her and her sister’s candles on their birthday cakes. She imagined what it would feel like to remove his flag and others.

“It feels like they’re all being forgotten. Like their stories didn’t matter. Like no one cares,” she said, looking away. “It’s like throwing yet another loss on the huge pile of losses.”

‘We’re okay’

A few weeks later, the flags were gone. Her parents’ house was sold. Her brother’s room was packed up. And Jeneffer was finishing up her first week back at work.

It was hard, but not as wrenching as she had feared. The company created a new position for her in its human resources department, so that she could work from home and avoid focusing on the virus.

It had been many days since her last panic attack. Sitting at home after a full day’s work on her laptop, she tried to pinpoint what had changed, exactly, when her grief had eased.

For weeks, she had listened to that recording of herself, narrating the worst day of her life. Somehow, the flashing guilt and pain she felt each time had gradually become a quiet sadness.

On Thanksgiving, she tagged her brother once again on Facebook. “Today is my first #Thanksgiving without you, John John,” she wrote. “I am reminded to be grateful to have had you in my life … I will do my best to find the 'happy’ and the ‘merry’ this holiday season, all in your name because that’s who you were.”

She still cries sometimes. It happened just a few nights ago while she was out walking her dog. She looked up at the moon and began speaking aloud to John.

“I miss you. I hope you know how much we all do,” she said quietly to the sky. “But we’re okay down here. We’re okay.”