Life & Death Navigating a year of Grief and gratitude

Written By Andrew Travers | Photos By Kelsey Brunner

Digital Production By Rose Anna Laudicina

Losing Art

Allison Daily has devoted her life to helping people navigate grief and loss. When Art, her husband of 25 years, died unexpectedly in December at age 79, she herself was challenged to try to use the tools and heed the advice she’d been giving all these years as a grief counselor and director of the Aspen-based nonprofit Pathfinders.

The mourning process was complicated by the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has forced people to grieve without traditional mass gatherings for funerals or memorial services and without the smaller comforts of hugs.

Through her pandemic, she’d been helping others make choices around grief in the pandemic. Even with all her clinical expertise and her vast empathetic gifts, Daily struggled when Art died.

“I still have to go through all the missing and the hurt and the pain and those feelings,” she said recently in her Aspen home off Cemetery Lane, seated on a blanket emblazoned with a picture of Art and joined by her two bulldogs. “I try to let myself really feel everything and not fight it.”

Allison Daily and her two bulldogs at home in Aspen.

She is grateful that the final nine months of Art’s life were during the pandemic, when he and Allison spent most of their time together at home. She views that time now as a gift.

“I think it's important to realize what things about the pandemic have served you,” she said. “For example, it sounds weird, but as hard as this confinement has been, my God, I had all this time with my husband that I would not have gotten otherwise.”

During the stay-home period of the early pandemic, their son Rider was home as well, studying for his LSAT. Yes, they got stir-crazy, Daily recalled, and yes, they felt like they were crawling all over one another and, yes, she sees it now as a blessing.

“Even if we were driving each other crazy, when you’re in the missing and you’re on this side – where that person isn’t here anymore – you have a completely different perspective on this,” she said. “You look back and go, ‘Gosh, there were so many things that, even though I was so mad at the time, I was so frustrated and angry, you know, that I'm so thankful I had that time.’ … As horrible as the pandemic has been, that's something I can take from it that I can be thankful for.”

With Art mostly retired and Allison working little, other than Zoom calls, during the spring 2020 lockdown, the pair got into a routine she came to cherish. She’d get coffee from an outdoor stand in town in the morning, they’d make cinnamon rolls, then hike or a bike depending on the weather. After a go-go life of work – Art as an attorney and city councilman – they also found joy in some lazy days of TV-watching during the lockdown.

Their partnership had been founded on grief and healing, beginning in the wake of tragedy. Art had lost his wife, Kathy, and sons Tanner, 10, and Shea, 6, when a falling boulder struck their car in Glenwood Canyon in 1995. Allison was fluent in the language of extraordinary grief, having lost a brother young to suicide, and reached out to Art to support him in the aftermath of the canyon tragedy.

Since the early days of their relationship and the aftermath of the accident, Allison and Art had discussed mortality openly. So last year, with Art’s health declining and the threat of the pandemic, they talked about it even more. Alison marveled at how Art lived in acceptance of it and without fear, which brought her solace when he did die in his sleep.

Every room of the Daily home, off Cemetery Lane, is filled with family photos, including images of Allison and Art, children Piper, Burke and Rider, and Art's late wife Kathy and children Tanner and Shea, who were killed by falling rocks on I-70 in 1995.

Art was cremated, per his wishes. She avoided creating any kind of group gathering for a memorial, so as not to spread the virus. She held a funeral service at the Aspen Chapel, with only the immediate family in-person and a larger group joining via Zoom, working with audio and visual professionals to make it a meaningful experience for the virtual attendees.

“I wanted to make sure that the feeling came across,” she said. “The feedback I got was that it had the feeling of intimacy and closeness and the video was good.”

Art was a beloved and very public figure in Aspen, from his time as a young lawyer in the 1960s through his varied public service including lending a hand with anyone who lost a child, from the memoir “Out of the Canyon” which he penned with Allison to his term serving on Aspen City Council. In normal times, his memorial would have brought out friends, locals and admirers to fill the biggest rooms in Aspen. (Allison suggested she might still hold a public celebration of his life some time later when restrictions allow.)

Without those traditional rites of mourning, but with distanced gatherings outside considered safe, Allison found herself going on walks with people instead, talking about Art and her feelings while huffing up Smuggler Mountain or hiking though the woods.

“If I wanted to see someone, it was great, we would just take a walk,” she said.

Daily was surprised to find herself grateful for social distancing guidelines and public health limits on gatherings in the time following Art’s death. For Pathfinders clients in mourning, she always suggests they create clear boundaries and put up a sign on their door when they don’t want visitors. The pandemic made that process easy for Daily.

Other than her brother and a close friend who got COVID tests so they could hug without concern, along with her and Art’s children, she asked people not to come to the house.

Her grieving happened privately, much of it in the home, with condolences arriving at a distance.

Allison Daily walks through her home in Aspen with her late husband Art Daily's clothes still hanging in the closet. “I still have to go through all the missing and the hurt and the pain and those feelings,” Daily said recently. “I try to let myself really feel everything and not fight it.”

“It was beautiful and it was wonderful,” she said. “I got amazing letters and things. … Having that space to just be able to process things alone actually really helped me.”

Though she is not normally an avid social media poster, she found herself writing openly about her emotions on Facebook after Art’s death. It touched people.

“I just got really vulnerable and it’s been amazing how much people have said it helps them,” she said. “I was just sharing from my heart about what I was going through. … I was surprised at how easy it has been to be vulnerable about it.”

She’d seen the additional stresses and pain that clients had endured due to the pandemic and felt called to make hers public.

“I’ve found people who were either grieving before or who have lost someone during the pandemic, it has really complicated their grief,” she said.

She took a full two-month break from her work at Pathfinders. But returning to that service has been fulfilling, she said.

“I know he loved so much what I did,” she said. “I find that it’s really comforting to continue doing it. And it’s such meaningful work.”

Through the pandemic, Daily has counseled people with COVID-19, people with its long-term effects, people grieving losses and in long-term illness, people making end-of-life decisions. She recently helped a client who is dying of cancer to write goodbye letters to loved ones. Pathfinders also is providing meals for individuals and families forced to quarantine or who are sick with the virus.

“He chose to live from a place of love, and not having fear," Allison Daily said of her late husband Art. "I feel like I got that blessing from him for the 25 years, I was with him. And I want to continue to live from that place of freedom.”

She encourages people navigating the pandemic and the strain it's put on everyone to find their own silver lining in the disruption.

“I think each person can find something, like, ‘Wow, I slowed down’ or ‘I found alternate ways to do yoga or to do exercise,’” she said.

She’s offered people tools to stay grounded and out of worry, exercises such as counting things one can touch or control at a given time.

“With this pandemic we've had no sense of hope for a long period of time,” she said. “And we've had this feeling of not being able to know what to expect next. And so part of what I try to talk with people about and that I apply to my own life is staying in the present moment as much as I can.”

“That is a kind of grief we’ve had during the pandemic, of not being able to travel or feel the freedom to go see family,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many people who’ve lost people during the pandemic, not being able to be with family has been disastrous – it’s just been so hurtful.”

Along with the grief of losing loved ones, Daily has seen the effect of our collective grief as a society as people reckon with the numbers, crossing 500,000 dead in the U.S. and 6,000 in Colorado recently. People also are mourning the loss of everyday life, like a non-threatening trip to the grocery store, mourning their freedom or their ability to work.

As the end of the pandemic appears in sight, Daily encourages people with anxiety about going back to “normal” to take it slow. If you’re anxious, she suggests small steps in doing things you haven’t done for a year.

“For example,” she said. “Once we went to the grocery store a couple times we saw, ‘Well, I can do that.’”

In her counseling work, she is seeing a spectrum of reactions as people get vaccinated. Some are immediately liberated and ready to return to normal life – “it’s like a floodgate, it was life-changing for that person” – while some plan to remain self-quarantined for some time.

“There’s something about that confinement that serves them,” she said.


Photo at left by Michele Cardamone/Special to The Aspen Times

However people are planning for post-pandemic life, she hopes people can be accepting of one another as public life reopens.

“There’s so much judgment around, ‘Oh, this person is doing this and they should be doing that,’” she said. “What I’ve tried to do with people is to say, ‘We have to meet each other where we’re at.’”

One common phenomenon she’s observed through the pandemic is new fears and anxieties arising in people, often triggered by seemingly inane things.

“What I try to do was to let it be an opportunity for people to kind of examine it,” she said. “If you take a fear that you have and you peel off different layers of it, you’ll find something basic that it comes from.”

She points to Art as an example of how to do that, as she recalled witnessing him face his family tragedy and feel its weight of emotion, rather than ignoring or diminishing it, even as he went on with his life.

“He had lost so much in his life, he had had the worst thing happened that could happen to any person,” she said. “And so he chose to live from a place of love, and not having fear. I feel like I got that blessing from him for the 25 years I was with him. And I want to continue to live from that place of freedom.”


Born in a Pandemic: Betty’s Story

Betty Rivera’s daughter, Antonella, took her first steps in the family’s Hunter Creek apartment in early March 2021, waddling briefly across the floor. The toddler turned 1 in January as the one-year mark of the pandemic loomed. She has spent nearly all of her life in the pandemic. Like those first steps, all of the grand milestones of her first year have been celebrated by the family at home and privately and without close contact with others or gatherings. The family celebrated her first birthday while in quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure.

“I just baked a cake and we’re just watching her starting to go from crawling to standing,” Betty said in early March. “So, it was just fun.”

Speaking to The Aspen Times a year ago, when Antonella was an infant and the town was under a stay-home order, she said: “I’m an optimist, so I’m seeing the glass half-full and not half-empty in this case.”

Betty has stuck to that outlook as much as she could through the occasional ups and considerable downs of pandemic childrearing.

She and her husband, Ross, have dealt with the anxiety and isolation of parenting in the pandemic, of being working parents, of getting sick themselves, but in talking about the experience she returns repeatedly to her gratitude for having had so much time at home with her daughter.

“I never would have had those nine months with my daughter, which has been amazing,” Betty Rivera said.

For Betty, the pandemic solved her anxiety around putting Antonella in day care at 3 months old and going back to work.

“This created such a special bond,” she said. “And I feel like, especially moms, we struggle so much with going back to work and staying an individual and a mom and a wife and everything. And this just helped me be happy to be with her and then also be happy to go out, go back to work.”

She went back to work in November, beginning a new job at Jus Aspen, and Antonella started day care at the Early Learning Center.

“We always knew we wanted her to go to day care,” she said. “We want her to have those social skills.”

Betty and her daughter, Antonella, at home in Aspen in May 2020 (left) and March 2021 (right) as she takes her first steps.

The pandemic delayed that decision and came with stress about exposure to the virus, but Betty was thankful to have day care options in Aspen. She has been pleased with the level of precautions the facility has taken – keeping classrooms separate, teachers masked, keeping parents out of the building and having them complete a digital affidavit each morning at drop-off certifying kids don’t have symptoms and have not been exposed to the virus.

Her friends back in her hometown, Mexico City, don’t have open child care centers yet.

“All of my friends with children are struggling not having their kids having that interaction with other people,” she said. “We’re very thankful that she is able to get to hang out with other little humans.”

Betty’s parents came from Mexico City for an extended visit, forming a pod here and spending four months together.

“It has been a blessing in disguise, because my parents never would have been able to leave work for that long,” she said.

In late December, as the number of infections spiked in Aspen, the whole clan did get sick with the virus, though they couldn’t trace the source. None of them had serious symptoms.

“It wasn’t as bad because it was the five of us just spending time together,” she said. “We always strive to see the best of things, so it was just more quality time together,” she said. “It really is just showing us the value of family and the time that we have together.”


Born in a Pandemic: Maile’s Story

“Every day feels so long, but the year has flown by so fast.” – Maile Spung

Reflecting on the pandemic year in Aspen and caring for her two children, now 1 and 3, Maile Spung sums up the time-bending effect of it all: “Every day feels so long, but the year has flown by so fast.”

Her son, Wade, turned 1 on March 1.

“It’s been like sealing the timeline of the pandemic,” she said. “It all happened right after he was born.”

They’ll never know for sure, but the family believes they all had the virus last March in the early days of the lockdown when they were all very ill, including the newborn.

Maile’s husband, Carson, a ski patroller at Snowmass, was on paternity leave when it struck. They stayed in a complete quarantine with the newborn and then 2-year-old Tanner through a stretch when there was still little known about the virus.

“We were fully locked down for a couple of weeks, just us here with the kids,” she said. “We didn't see anybody for a long time.”

After that, the family adhered to public health restrictions and stayed mostly at home. Eventually, and tentatively, they formed a pod with Maile's parents and step-parents – two sets of grandparents for the kids – and began spending a lot of time together. To protect the elders, they opted to keep the children out of day care. To make it work, they whirled through a near-constant kiddie shuffle among the caregivers, each set of grandparents taking one day per week and her husband taking one solo, giving Maile three days to work at Ute Mountaineer, which she co-owns with her father, who has been stepping away from day-to-day operations.

“He took on child care so I could run the store, which was great,” she said.

Late last year, they were able to hire an au pair. This month, all of the grandparents will be vaccinated and the Spungs plan to return to day care.

“It feels like there is light at the end of the tunnel, like we’re going to come out of the other end of this,” Maile said. “Sometimes it didn’t feel that way.”

Maile Spung with Wade, 1, and husband Carson in March 2021.

When Wade was an infant in the early days of the pandemic, the Spungs missed out on things like having friends visit or hold the baby, they put off letting him meet out-of-town relatives and were challenged to make decisions around his care with little solid info.

Maile Spung hugs her daughter, Tanner, while holding her son Wade in April 2020.

Then summer offered the freedom of outdoor play, and they organized a group of kids Tanner’s age they’d meet to play outside.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, other than my parents’ house, we haven't been inside anybody's houses,” Maile said. “We just made a really big effort to meet people outside, even this winter, you know, go sledding, go skiing, go play at the parks, even still outside.”

Tanner also went to a playgroup of three – run by a woman who babysat Maile when she was a toddler – who stuck to outdoor activities until recently as the incidence rate has dropped.

“It was cold in January and those kids were super tough in it,” Maile said. “It taught them a little bit of grit and to appreciate the winter.”

Listen to Maile talk about how her family navigated life with a newborn during the COVID-19 pandemic and making sure her two children were able to have social time while staying safe in the video below.

The kids have hit some milestones through the pandemic – Tanner potty-trained last spring (“I wouldn’t want to repeat that, it was so intense,” said Maile) and Wade started walking in February – but the siblings bonding has been the most important.

“The biggest milestone to me is now our daughter's like, starting to want to play with him and incorporate him,” Maile said. “Before he was just sort of a blob. … They are few and far between but little moments of interaction and caring and love between them has been a huge one — just in the last couple of weeks.”

As the pandemic has dragged on, the family has gone through the familiar stress and waiting period of learning they’ve been exposed to COVID, getting tested and awaiting results for several days in quarantine. Those five tests and those bracing days of waiting, Spung suggested, are emblematic of the unusual and intense stresses of the pandemic.

“Everyone has been through this now,” she said, “but those days in between the test and results and things like that, those moments of anxiety are really hard to forget.”

Christmas 2020 was particularly rough. Carson was exposed to an infected person at work on Christmas Eve and had to quarantine for 10 days. He went to a family home in Grand Junction for his quarantine period.

“We opted to have him quarantine away from us, because it just shortens the quarantine time so much,” Maile said.

That choice allowed the family to avoid the cascade of infections that has kept some other families in strict quarantine for as long as four or six weeks during the pandemic. But it wasn’t an easy choice for Dad to leave before the holiday.

Back in April 2020, at home with the kids during the stay-home period in Aspen, Maile told The Aspen Times: “The days are exhausting, you know, but it’s so fun. (Tanner is) at a really funny age. Like she can be super volatile and crazy, but for the most part it’s really fun. I’m sure we’ll look back and think that was awesome more than we’ll think that was so hard.”

Still looking on the bright side and hunting for silver linings, Maile sees extraordinary value in all of the family time. But she’s also accepted that it’s all right to admit that she didn’t like living through a historic and deadly pandemic.

“My mom is always like, ‘You’re going to look back on this and wish that you had that again,’” she said. “I don't know. I don’t think I will look back on this with many fond memories.”

The Spungs at home in March 2021.

And like many in Aspen, she’s grateful to have been here through the crisis.

“We live in the greatest place on Earth, we have so many opportunities, we have help, we have parents around, we have so many things going for us,” she said. “And it's still been so hard. … There hasn’t been much that’s been easy about it.”