With Flags, Crosses and Photos, Mourning 200,000 Dead
Twelve days after his wife died of the coronavirus, increasing the enormous toll in the United States by one, Michael Davis, dazed and grieving, went back to work.
He hoped that his job, at an assembly plant in Louisville, Ky., would keep his hands busy, which might then occupy his mind, too. Maybe it would ease his longing for Dana, 51, a nurse with blonde hair and a bright smile. They were just shy of their seventh wedding anniversary when the coronavirus took her life.
But at work, it felt like the pandemic was the only thing people could think about, the center of conversation at his sprawling factory. And on the news, every story seemed to be about the coronavirus.
“Everything’s corona, everything’s corona — that’s all you hear about all the time,” Mr. Davis said. “You don’t want that reminder all the time of why she’s gone.”
The coronavirus crisis in the United States has claimed nearly 200,000 lives, the young and the old, those living in dense cities and tiny towns, people who spent their days as nursing home attendants, teachers, farm laborers and retirees.
The loved ones left behind are trapped in an extraordinary state of torment. They have seen their spouses, parents and siblings fall ill from the virus. They have endured the deaths from a distance, through cellphone connections or shaky FaceTime feeds. Now they are left to grieve, in a country still firmly gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, where everywhere they turn is a reminder of their pain.
That aftermath has been uniquely complicated, and cruel. In dozens of conversations, people across the United States who have lost family members to the coronavirus described a maelstrom of unsettled frustration, anger and isolation, all of it intensified by the feeling that the pandemic is impossible to shut out.
Many are bitter over the government’s handling of the pandemic, which has brought bleak milestones since the first announcement of a coronavirus death in the United States in late February. By May 27, more than 100,000 people in the country had died from the virus. Less than four months later, nearly 100,000 more people are dead, losses captured in the flags, crosses and photographs at memorials that are popping up around the country.
Some survivors have felt a stigma attached to their loved ones’ deaths, a faint suggestion by acquaintances that their relatives were somehow to blame for being infected. And they have been particularly distraught by the constant mentions of it in conversations and in the news, inescapable reminders that resurface their own losses like a pinprick.
“Unless you’re one of the people who has lost somebody to this,” said Corinthia Ford of Detroit, whose father, a beloved pastor, died from the coronavirus in April, “you don’t understand.”
In Louisville, Mr. Davis ultimately went on short-term leave, realizing that he needed to step away from a job that demanded a focus he had temporarily lost.
But staying home brought a different misery.
In the evenings, he began skipping the news in favor of Netflix, where he hoped he might avoid mentions of the coronavirus. Scrolling through Facebook, it was a constant topic. He read posts from people who were cavalier about its risks, dismissing it as a minor affliction that killed a small fraction of people who caught it.
One of those people, he thought, was his Dana.
‘A mystery that will never be solved’
For Teresa DiMezza, a high school guidance counselor in New Jersey, September brought a new academic year and a busy schedule. But there was no respite from the virus, or from the questions that have been left unanswered since her father, Samuel Fuoco, 71, died from the coronavirus in April.
She wonders how her father, a military veteran who was so strong, could have died so quickly. How was he infected in the first place?
“This is a mystery that will never be solved, and we have to learn to live with this,” Ms. DiMezza said. “We will never know — and that is sickening.”
She and her family members have been plagued by guilt, reliving the scramble to manage his medical care, which had to happen entirely over the phone because of hospital restrictions.
“What if we were there?” she said. “What if we hadn’t had him intubated? Is he disappointed with us? Did he realize we weren’t there? Could he hear our voices on the phone?”
Families who endured their spouses and relatives’ hospital stays recounted a whiplash of hopes and disappointments. Joe Takash of suburban Chicago believes he knows how his parents both became infected with the coronavirus in May.
They had been so cautious, following all the rules, staying inside and away from other people. Then one day, his mother, Kathleen Takash, wanted to drop off some clothes at her seamstress’s house. They hugged and chatted for a bit. It turned out that the seamstress was infected with the virus but did not know it. Soon, both of his parents were sick.
But Mr. Takash does not know why his father, 87, recovered from the virus quickly while his mother, 82, succumbed in a hospital in June.
On two different occasions, the family thought she was going to be discharged. Then she would take a turn for the worse.
“Even when I realized the writing was probably on the wall, you’re still hoping for a miracle,” Mr. Takash said. “If she had terminal cancer or something, you know there’s no chance.”
‘The anger gets in the way’
Shane Peoples, 41, has had plenty of grief since his parents were taken by the coronavirus this month. It has frequently been interrupted by outrage.
He tells their story like the storybook romance it was: Darlene and Johnny Peoples, native North Carolinians, were happily married for nearly half a century, and were exceptionally close and devoted to their children. But that lifetime together ended abruptly when the couple, both of them stricken by the coronavirus, died four minutes apart while holding hands in a hospital room in Salisbury, N.C.
They went to the hospital on the same day. They entered the intensive care unit on the same day. And they died on the same day.
“They held each other’s hands for 50 years,” Mr. Peoples said. “They held them as they left this earth and they are still holding them in heaven.”
He and others who lost relatives to the virus said they could not stop thinking about what they considered the mishandling of the pandemic by President Trump and politicians of both parties closer to home.
“Personally, losing my parents brought out a lot of anger for me,” said Mr. Peoples, who lives in China Grove, N.C., near Charlotte. “They were stolen from us by a virus that should have been contained months ago.”
Mr. Peoples, a Democrat whose parents were longtime Republicans, expressed fury at Mr. Trump, who downplayed the virus in the spring and continues to hold large indoor rallies and largely shrug off masks and social distancing.
Fiana Garza Tulip, 40, who lives in Brooklyn, has found it difficult to grieve her mother with her anger so fierce.
She blames state and national political leaders for the death of her mother, Isabelle Odette Papadimitriou, who was 64 when she died of the virus in Dallas in July. And she is furious at people who do not wear masks, who spread misinformation and who are in denial about how lethal the virus can be.
“I can’t cry and I wish I could,” she said. “I want to feel all the things you should when a loved one dies so tragically because it helps you get through it. But the anger gets in the way.”
Conversations about mask-wearing can cut deep to those who have lost relatives to the virus. Gary Werito Jr., of Tuba City, Ariz., gets angry when he hears the issue framed as a choice that could infringe on personal freedom. What about the freedoms of his mother and aunt, who died from the virus in April?
For some mourners, cutting people out of their lives — at least on social media — has been the only solution.
Since her uncle and cousin died in Rhode Island after battling the coronavirus, Tammy Chevrette has been tortured by hurtful and inaccurate comments from friends and acquaintances.
“I have been mad, but not at God,” she said. “Some people are so insensitive with the comments they make, like ‘this is fearmongering,’ and saying ‘this isn’t real, it’s a conspiracy to affect the election’ and ‘this only affects sickly or old people.’”
She is coping in the modern way: deleting friends from her Facebook account. “I told people off,” she said. “It was so painful to hear what they were saying.”
At the car dealership in Salt Lake City where Cesar Hernandez works, he explained to a co-worker this summer that his father had just died from complications caused by the coronavirus.
It is all fake, Mr. Hernandez’s co-worker responded.
“He said it was a conspiracy made up by the government and said, ‘You’ll see after the November election, the talk about it will disappear,’” he said. “He didn’t think the coronavirus was real.” Mr. Hernandez was left in shock. “I thought to myself, ‘People are not going to change their mentality until it happens to them or a close family member.’”
‘My husband is in there’
Through it all, the mourners are still living through a pandemic.
In her Charleston, S.C., home, Petrice Brown was walking from one room to another this month when a black-and-white Time magazine cover flashed on the television screen. Nearly 200,000 people had died of the coronavirus in the United States, the headline told her.
“I stopped in my tracks,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Wow. My husband is in there.’”
After that, she stopped watching the news.
It is a common refrain from families who have lost loved ones to the virus: There is no way to turn the world off.
The pandemic dominates social media, newspapers, radio and television. Stopping at the grocery store requires standing on floor markings in the checkout line. Even the simple act of slipping on a mask can be a reminder of a relative who died from the virus.
Ivette Marquez, of Brooklyn, said the numbers — the deaths, the cases — that continue to flash across television screens and on the internet are seared into her mind. She knows that about 800 others in New York City died of the coronavirus on the same day as her father.
Another woman whose father died from the virus said that hearing the word Covid is like getting punched. One widow said she listened to people talk about a vaccine and could only think of one thing: Whenever it comes will be too late for her husband.
“Yesterday was the first time I watched the news in five months,” said Denise Chandler of Detroit, who lost both her father and husband to the coronavirus in a matter of weeks this summer. “Everywhere you turn, it’s Covid this, Covid that. I’m just tired of hearing about Covid.”
In Charleston, Ms. Brown has been receiving some visitors at her home while keeping strict coronavirus guidelines in place. She placed signs at her front door asking people to wear masks and socially distance. Bottles of hand sanitizer are everywhere. All of it is needed, she says, and yet all of it is a painful reminder of what killed her husband, Keith, this month.
She has even been treated by visitors as if she could be contagious. One friend, arriving with a platter of food in her hands, backed away quickly when Ms. Brown, keeping a safe distance of six feet, tried to greet her with a hello.
“She said, ‘No, no, I’m just dropping this off,’” Ms. Brown said. “It really hurt me.”
‘It took my breath away’
Perhaps the most difficult part to process, many survivors said, has been losing a family member to a ubiquitous pandemic but being robbed of the ability to publicly mourn.
Families were not allowed to hold their loved ones’ hands when they died in hospitals. They cannot receive hugs of comfort from friends. They have been forced to curtail gatherings with groups in living rooms, in the pews of churches or at crowded pubs and restaurants in the rituals that guide families through loss.
Even the tradition of a funeral procession — dozens of cars in a line, halting traffic around them, making their mourning visible to the community — has been painfully disrupted, as funerals have been limited to a small handful of family members at most.
The pandemic has proved an old saying familiar in the funeral trade: Grief shared is grief diminished.
There is some consolation, though, in fellow coronavirus survivors.
Robb Hickey, who lost his 45-year-old wife to the coronavirus in Idaho, said he had been comforted by talking with a woman he grew up with in Burns, Ore., who reached out to him not long ago from her home in North Carolina.
“She told me that her husband was one of the first Covid deaths in that area,” said Mr. Hickey, who had lived with his wife, Samantha, a nurse practitioner, in Caldwell. “We’ve talked a couple times now and shared some thoughts and feelings. Talking to other widows and widowers has helped me cope with death.”
Others have connected on social media, where groups for mourners have sprung up, and hundreds of people share aching stories of loss.
Ms. Chandler, a mother of eight in Detroit, has had little time for grieving as she raises her children and keeps most visitors away, too worried about exposing her family to the virus.
She took one day last month to let herself be immersed in sadness. She went to a public memorial in Detroit — a long, driving tour of photographs of the city’s dead, arranged in alphabetical order — with her children.
“Immediately upon entering, you see the first person that starts in ‘A,’ and you see how long the line is,” Ms. Chandler said. “Tears immediately started coming down my face. It took my breath away just to see all of the families that were affected by this virus.”
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Steven Moity contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.