(WIVB)– As thousands of families would tell you, one of the cruelest things about COVID-19 is the way in which it has compromised the normal grieving process. 

Human beings are wired to be close in their grief, to comfort one another and tell stories about the departed, to laugh and cry in groups. A pandemic demands the opposite — physical isolation and distant, muted goodbyes.

It has been especially difficult for Julie McNeil. Nine months after her husband, Brett, died at age 48 of the coronavirus, she anguishes over the fact that the family hasn’t haven’t been able to properly mourn Brett’s passing, or celebrate his life. 

“That’s probably been the hardest part, not being together as a family,” McNeil said on Wednesday, one day before the end of a very tough year.

Julie and Brett got married 10 years ago. They had five children combined from their previous marriages. But his two boys, Kamron and Logan, were living in Niagara Falls, Ontario, when he died on the Saturday before Easter.

Because of the Canadian border closing, his biological sons haven’t been able to visit Buffalo and be with their three step-siblings since Brett’s death. The family also wasn’t able to mourn together after Brett’s mother, Rosemarie, passed away at the VA hospital in October.

So Julie waits for a day when they can celebrate Brett’s life. His ashes sit on a table in her dining room in Cheektowaga. She has a bedroom full of his belongings, unwilling to throw them away because of what they might mean to his children.

“My youngest said he feels like every day he wakes up, Brett died yesterday,” she said. “Because it feels like … ”

She broke down crying before she could finish the sentence. It’s devastating to lose your spouse and best friend, even more so when the loss feels fresh so many months later, absent the emotional closure we take for granted.

“There’s no chance to heal,” she said. “The thing you would normally do to heal yourselves are not allowed. So that’s been the hard part of it.” 

“The best part of it, of course, is the Buffalo Bills!”

McNeil’s voice rose when she uttered those words. Aside from his family, the Bills were Brett’s abiding passion, a team he had followed faithfully since he was a boy, rooting for them through good times and bad. 

Julie shared his love for the team. They had season tickets, went to tailgates in Buffalo, traveled to road games together, wore their Bills colors and made certain to update their gear every year. 

Like so many Bills fans, Brett had suffered through the playoff drought, and he was really optimistic about the 2020 season. This could be the year, he thought. He loved the Stefon Diggs trade. He and Julie planned to get matching “Ya Digg?” tee shirts for the occasion.

“Oh my God, he would love this so much,” Julie said, two days after the Bills got to 12-3 on the season.

“Before Brett and I were together, he lived in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He had one Bills ticket, one season ticket. He said he would drive over, no tailgating. He would get into the stadium, get himself a Guinness. He would drink his one Guinness, watch the game by himself, then go back over the border.”

In later years, he and Julie would go to the pre-game tailgates at Abbott and Allen with Mike Pitillo, his long-time colleague at West Herr, where Brett worked for 20 years. They sat in the old Maguire Club at the stadium. 

“Our tailgate was huge when we all got together,” she said. “But originally, he came to watch his teams … win.”

The word “win” had her crying again. Bills fans could relate to that solitary ritual, the belief that somehow, despite all the loss and disappointment, his beloved team would win again some day. Inside every fan is the boundless, innocent faith of a child. 

So yes, you can imagine how he would relish this Bills team, which recently won its first AFC East title in 25 years and has become a legitimate Super Bowl contender with Josh Allen at quarterback and Diggs as the NFL’s top wide receiver.

“Yeah, there were some real tough years,” Julie said. “Brett always said, ‘This team never plays to win, they always play not to lose.’  He loved football so much. He’d say, ‘They’re in Cover 1, Cover 2.’ I’d say ‘How do you know that?’ He just knew football that well.”

She talks to him all the time during the games now. They certainly don’t play not to lose anymore, do they Brett? Can you believe how Brian Daboll just keeps attacking, having Allen throw the ball with a lead and keep the pressure on defenses?

Brett was a fitness nut. He worked out at the gym every day. He played football at Turner/Carroll and played semi-pro ball in Hamilton. His death proved that the coronavirus can claim even the healthiest people. 

After he died, she and the kids teased that Brett had sold his soul for the Bills to win. It helps to laugh when you’ve run out of tears, right? But watching this remarkable Bills team, you wonder if he had the most valuable soul in heaven.

“It was kind of a joke to begin with,” Julie said, “but then they started winning and they just kept winning and they kept getting better.”

The big win over the Patriots was a joy for all Bills fans, payback for 20 years as the Pats’ patsy. But it was that post-game interview on ESPN, when Allen and Diggs showed such a powerful, playful bond, that Brett would have really appreciated. 

“I think that’s what he would like most about this team, that they’re like brothers,” she said. “You watch them interview and they never talk about themselves. They always talk about each other. Brett being a former football player and teammate, that’s what he would love the most. Really, that’s how you win. Every team has tons of talent, right?”

She also read a feature story in which Allen and Diggs talked about bonding by playing video games. 

“Oh my God! I read that a couple of times,” she said. “Just the way they connected. It’s funny, that’s how my kids are staying close, by gaming. All four of my boys are gamers. The border doesn’t stop that from happening. That’s how they stay close.”

“Brett also loved the games. That really was emotional, to see the way this team is coming together and really being great. That’s what he loved about this city. It’s what this city does. It’s what they did for us.”

Bills fans are renowned as crazy and impassioned, with a charitable heart. When Brett died, a family friend named Theresa Zielen started a Facebook campaign to raise money for the McNeils. Her goal was to raise $7,500. They raised more than $53,000.

“A lot of people I didn’t even know,” Julie said. “Brett didn’t know them. Bills Mafia sent me message. I didn’t realize until months later, there was a spam folder on Facebook. All these people had sent me messages.

“You expect your own people to come out and support you. You read about Josh Allen’s grandmother and Andy Dalton, and it’s a good story. But when you really experience it from the same people, from perfect strangers … It’s family; it’s deep.”

It’s been a tough year, one she’ll never forget. Julie had the coronavirus, too. She had symptoms when Brett got sick, but decided to ride it out at home because she didn’t want to go to the hospital and leave her son. 

Her restaurant is doing OK. Julie owns Ziggy’s Taco and Subs in the city, which has been around since 1977. It’s built for takeout and has a loyal, supportive clientele.

“We’re trying to chug along and find happiness when we can,” she said, “and the Buffalo Bills are a big part of that happiness. But it’s tough for us. Brett was a huge presence in all of our lives.” 

“(CEO) Scott Bieler at West Herr, this man reached out to me like I was his own daughter. He’s been so generous with his time, checking on me, anything you need. They’re like a family there, too. At least I feel like I’m not alone. I definitely have an army of people behind me. But he left a big hole in a lot of people’s lives.”

A football game isn’t life and death, but Buffalo fans can tell you matters. It can bring people together, and in Julie’s case, it has surely helped with the grieving process. She said she can feel Brett’s presence when she’s watching the games. Last spring, one of Brett’s friends at West Herr sent her two “Ya Digg?” shirts from 26 Shirts. 

“We’ve been wearing them on and off,” she said. “Well, I’ve been wearing them. Everyone is excited and I think they believe Brett is up there doing it for us. I know he would want us to be out there celebrating.”

“You’ve got to have something to hold onto, right?”