By Lisa Hughes

NEWTON (CBS) – Sitting in chairs on the lawn of the Newton Squash and Tennis Club, the three women hold hands and finish each other’s sentences. It is as if they have been best friends forever. But Jill Federman, Lisa Mazerolle and Michelle Pepe barely knew one another before each of their fathers died of COVID nine days apart. “It’s traumatic for all of us,” Jill explained. “I cried for a year.”

All three women grew up in Randolph but were acquaintances at best. Jill and Michelle met through a mutual friend. Michelle and Lisa knew one another as classmates but had lost touch. No one could have predicted the connection they made in the spring of 2020 or the strength of the bond that sustains them. Grief forged their connection.

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Lisa’s father David Post died April 4, 2020 in Massachusetts. He wasn’t feeling well. But when he left his home in Easton for the hospital, he was well enough to walk himself to the ambulance carrying his Kindle. “There was no way that any of us knew he wasn’t coming back,” Lisa remembered. At that point in the pandemic, family members were not allowed to visit patients in the hospital. David Post died at Good Samaritan Hospital in Brockton with a nurse, who was also a family friend, holding his hand.

Lisa Mazerolle, Jill Federman and Michelle Pepe (WBZ-TV)

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Jill’s father Harvey Federman—who just two weeks earlier was skiing and enjoying the outdoors—started feeling sick. Jill’s stepmother Carol was hospitalized (at the time, hers was not a confirmed COVID case but an antibody test later came back positive) in early April. Harvey called Jill on his way to pick up Carol at the hospital. He was having trouble breathing but assured her it was nothing. “My father was the kind of person who didn’t want us to worry, “she explained. The last time Jill and her brother spoke to her father—with the help of a nurse who held his phone to his ear—they told him to fight. Harvey died on April 8, 2020.

At the same time, Michelle Pepe was sick with COVID in Florida. Her husband and daughters were in Massachusetts. Her father Bernie Rubin did not want to go to the hospital. “It’s almost like he saw the negative—going forward into the hospital and not ever coming out.” When Michelle was well enough, she helped nurse her mother back to health. But Bernie (whom New Englanders knew on a first-name basis as Bernie of Bernie & Phyl’s) died on April 13, 2020. “There was no burial,” Michelle said. “They couldn’t get his body back because there was a back-up. Jews like to be buried immediately. He would have been horrified… There were a lot of Jewish rituals that were not performed.”

All three women felt a grief they had never known. When Michelle heard about Lisa’s dad, she sent her a text message that would change their lives. “She said—do you know Jill Federman?” Lisa recalls, “She’s from Randolph and she just lost her dad this week….can we start a group text?”

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They texted for months—sharing their sadness, frustrations (when their fathers died, no one was yet wearing masks or social distancing), and support. By the time they actually met on ZOOM weeks later, their friendship had blossomed. “It’s two sisters,” Michelle explained through tears, “I never had that. I have two brothers. I love them. I have daughters. We have been through this thing…three dads…they were ripped out of our lives.” The isolation of the pandemic made the comfort of their calls and messages that much more meaningful.

They finally met—in person—in October of 2020. Their weekend together on Cape Cod felt like a reunion. Even now, more than a year after their father’s deaths, there isn’t a day that they don’t text or talk. Lisa explained, “It’s like an on-call therapist but really better because they went through it. Pure empathy.”

They say the friendship has been one of—if not the—most powerful factors in their emotional recovery. Jill, a two-time cancer survivor, says the death of her father was harder than anything she has experienced. Without Lisa and Michelle she says, “We would be lost… We were lucky to find each other.”

Because they know the power of connection, they encourage anyone who is grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID to find a support group. They hope to host such a group someday for people in the Boston-area. They have also become activists, joining the effort to make March 1st a national COVID Memorial Day.

The symbol for a COVID loss, they explained, is a yellow heart. Michelle explained, “We’re trying to make our dads proud. That’s the bottom line. I live every day asking—what can I do in his honor today?”

Since Bernie Rubin died, the family has welcomed two new babies to the family who would have been Bernie’s great-grandchildren. One, Benji, was named in his honor. The family plans to celebrate Bernie’s life on Father’s Day.

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Lisa continued her friends’ thought, “The way they died was so horrific. If we can somehow make a positive out of that—the silver lining is to try to change the world a little bit.”

Lisa Hughes