Story at a glance
- The National COVID-19 Day of Remembrance was held in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4.
- Americans who have lost their loved ones to the coronavirus paid tribute and spoke in remembrance.
- Those who are grieving have turned to each other for support online, due to the restrictions of the pandemic.
Twenty-thousand empty chairs lined the National Mall this weekend, each representing just a fraction of the American lives lost due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"These chairs will be a visually stunning art installation representing a fraction of the heartbreaking and unimaginable loss of 200,000 lives to COVID-19 in six just months,” said Grammy award-winning singer Dionne Warwick, who hosted the virtual event, in a release. “It’s time to stand with all the survivors and Americans who have been devastatingly impacted. It’s time to thank the essential workers and treat this pandemic as it is: an incredible tragedy. And most of all, it’s time to pray for those still suffering and for our Nation to unite and come together to mourn and honor the precious lives lost.”
The United States has 4 percent of the world's population and 20 percent of the global death toll from the coronavirus. But Sabila Khan, a Jersey City native who works in book publishing, doesn’t want her father to be remembered as just one of many.
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“When you hear the [presidential] candidates constantly refer to that tally, that tally includes our loved ones, so that’s triggering and a reminder that our loved ones are on the national stage in a way we don’t want them to be,” Khan told Changing America.
Her father, a community activist, was in a rehabilitation facility due to Parkinson’s disease when the country shut down after the initial coronavirus outbreak. Khan, a mother of two, wasn’t able to make it to a planned visit March 11, the last time her mother and brother saw her father.
“It was really a nightmare that my family and I lived through,” Khan said. “And then when he died, it was very, very traumatic for all of us.”
Her family watched the burial live streamed on Facetime, but couldn’t be together due to the pandemic. Unable to sleep, Khan spent hours on social media, looking for connection. When she didn’t find it, she decided to create it herself.
“Social media in so many ways has become a dangerous place for the COVID-bereaved but also a place of solace,” she said. “I just wanted to talk to other people who were going through what I was going through. I think the experience of grief, of COVID grief during a pandemic, is a very very unique experience that people might not understand unless they've lived through it.”
The private group, "COVID-19 Loss Support for Family and Friends," now has more than 2,500 members, and is a politics-free safe space for those who have lost loved ones to find and offer support.
“It’s allowed me to make something beautiful out of the pain of many. It's a place where people can come together and support each other during a time of great divide,” said Khan.
One of those people is Brian Walter, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority employee and essential worker, whose entire family has had COVID-19. Last Monday, months after his father John Walter died of COVID-19, he and his family were able to hold a small funeral service and bury the ashes. John, a lifelong Dodgers and Mets fan who on his 80th birthday was honored for having the same ZIP code his entire life, would have turned 81 the next day.
“Just like all other COVID victims, we’ve been stripped of the traditional wake and the traditional rite of grieving,” Brian said. “The other horrific aspect of this all is having to defend against all of the people who are saying that this is not even a real virus or this is a hoax.”
He found support through Khan’s Facebook group and is now an administrator of the group.
“My biggest hope is that the twenty-plus thousand people that have passed of this virus in this country start to get a name and a recognition,” he said. “In all cases so far, from 9/11 to school shootings and all the national tragedies, there is a big focus on the victims. We need to give a name and a face to all the victims."’
For some, however, it’s not only the people they’ve lost but their life before the pandemic.
“I don't think my life will ever be the same because there's people missing from it now,” said Maria del Rosario Palacios, a 30-year-old single mother of three. Four generations of her family have had the coronavirus, including her grandfather, mother, herself and two of her kids.
Her mother was one of thousands of poultry plant workers who have tested positive for COVID-19. A healthy woman in her mid-50s, she had worked in the poultry plant industry for two decades and spent 12 years at the plant before being fired last week due to her illness.
“I thought it was scary to see my mother manage that but it was even worse to see my children go through it,” she said. “I think my entire ecosystem in Gainesville has been really impacted.”
Her grandfather in Mexico died of the coronavirus in April and her partner recently lost his grandmother to COVID-19. While caring for her children, whom she has not sent back to school, and mother, who suffered a stroke and now has high blood pressure and diabetes, the former PTA mom and nonprofit employee has also found time to help others through a mutual aid organization, Georgia Familias Unidas. The group provides disposable masks to poultry plant workers and those most in need.
“I don't know how other single parents are doing it or people with twins, oh my goodness, I really don't know,” she said. “Because I really don't know how I’m doing it. I’m taking it day by day, minute by minute.”
The National COVID-19 Day of Remembrance held a moment of silence Sunday, followed by tributes to those who have died.
“It's not ending. It's not just one day of trauma. It’s ongoing. We don't know what winter will bring. We don't know what tomorrow will bring,” said Khan. “[The survivors] wanted their loved ones to be honored and remembered and commemorated now, today, not five years down the road. To remember that this pandemic is real and that our loved ones were robbed of their lives and that we as a community exist.”
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