The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

750,000 Americans dead as many families feel unity in pain but division in mourning

Candles and crosses in honor victims of the pandemic in Florida. (Saul Martinez for The Washington Post)
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Uncle Tyrone went first. On his way to the hospital in South Florida, he implored his niece Lisa Wilson: “I want the vaccine.”

“You can’t get it now,” Wilson told Tuyrono “Tyrone” Moreland, who was 48. Uncle Tyrone never made it home, dying Aug. 22.

Wilson’s grandmother, Lillie Mae Dukes Moreland, who raised Lisa and nine of her own children, was next. She’d decided against the vaccine. It was too new, she thought. Plus, some members of the family had counseled her against getting the shot. At age 89, they said, she was too old. In late August, she came down with covid-19, was taken to the hospital the day after Tyrone’s funeral and died less than 24 hours later.

The next day, Aug. 31, one of Wilson’s cousins died of covid complications. A few days later, another cousin, and then a third. And on Sept. 14, yet a fourth of Lisa’s cousins succumbed to the disease.

Six members of her family — all unvaccinated — had died in three weeks. Still, some of her relatives said they didn’t need to get the shot. They were, they said, healthy and strong and could survive.

The nation on Wednesday reached another haunting milestone: 750,000 Americans killed by covid. In the first year and a half of the pandemic, a common way to try to fathom the loss was to compare the death toll to the populations with cities: Kenosha, Wis., at 100,000 deaths, Salt Lake City, at 200,000, St. Louis, at 300,000, Atlanta, at 500,000.

Now, according to Johns Hopkins University’s running tally of covid deaths, the losses have reached a level that can be compared to entire states: If the Americans who died of covid made up a state, it would rank 47th in the country, more populous than Alaska, Vermont or Wyoming. The District of Columbia — though not a state, it surpasses Vermont and Wyoming in population — also would be eclipsed.

As the delta variant swept the United States this summer, hitting hardest in places with the highest percentages of unvaccinated people, deaths soared. They began to fall again as autumn arrived. The number of new covid cases dropped by more than half between September and October.

But in funeral homes, at graveside services and in conversations within the families, these latest deaths created a distinctive grief. It is a mourning that asks not just “Why us?” or “How do we go on?” but also “Are these the last to be struck down?” and “Could we have prevented this?”

They are glaring questions that split families, sometimes sparking angry accusations of blame. Unlike so many of the imponderable questions that surround death, these may indeed have answers. This season’s dead — in what some dare to hope might be the last big surge of the pandemic — are overwhelmingly those who did not get the vaccine.

From gatherings in Florida to funerals in Michigan, that has deepened the divisions and magnified the sorrow at events meant to comfort and unite. Among Wilson’s relatives, the loss of the family’s matriarch had at first “brought everybody together in disbelief,” she said. Each night, as word arrived of another cousin who could not breathe, “we stayed on the phone, with ‘How’s this one doing?’ ‘What’s happened to that one?’ ”

Fissures developed. One of Wilson’s uncles didn’t attend his own mother’s funeral because he was afraid of getting vaccinated and didn’t want to further upset relatives who had been urging him to get the shot.

As the deaths impossibly kept coming, 10 of Wilson’s relatives changed their minds and got the shot. Others stuck to their position that the vaccine was too new and too untested. It got to where some members of the family avoided talking about the pandemic or the vaccine altogether.

“We aren’t angry, but upset about them not having the interest to take it,” said Wilson, who works as an aide to a Palm Beach County commissioner and made sure that she, her husband and their four adult children all got vaccinated. One Sunday in September, another of Wilson’s cousins, Gilbert Grantlin III, a minister, joined dozens of their relatives in crisscrossing South Florida, from Boynton Beach to Palm Springs to Belle Glade, to attend memorials for three of their own.

“I looked at my family and I asked myself, ‘When is enough enough?’ ” said Grantlin, 27, who presided over four of his relatives’ funerals in September. He keeps urging the stragglers to get the shot: “When do we finally do what needs to be done and protect our family?”

As soon as her first relative fell ill last summer, Wilson got on the phone, night after night, trying to convince reluctant family members that the vaccine was safe and effective. Her beloved Lillie Mae, whom she called “my grandmother mother,” wouldn’t budge. She said she sanitized. She lived on her own. She kept her distance.

And she’d seen her 93-year-old brother survive a harrowing bout of covid after he’d been vaccinated. No amount of explaining that her brother had already been infected with the virus before he took the shot could dissuade her on this. Then over the summer, Lillie Mae “got lonely and saw some people,” Wilson said. “She let her guard down.”

The matriarch’s death nudged some members of the family to the side in favor of the vaccine. Others still stood firm. Faith, they argued, was more essential than science. Grantlin, the minister, pushed back, arguing that his relatives’ religion should lead them to get the shot.

Grantlin was careful in what he said to them. He did not say he believed their resistance was, as he put it, “stubbornness, laziness and, as my great-grandmother would say, just plain hardheadedness.”

He did tell his relatives that “the vaccine does not contradict your belief. The Bible tells us that ‘for lack of knowledge, my people will perish.’ ”

More deaths did not still the discord. “There were a lot of tensions because one part of the family thought the vaccine would kill you quicker than the virus,” said Grantlin, who got covid in July, before he was vaccinated, and spent a week in the hospital with a high fever. “They said, ‘Where is your faith in God? Why are you putting your faith in what is man-made?’ ”

Four years ago, long before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the family suffered through four deaths in one month, stemming from a variety of illnesses. Two funerals took place on the same day in the same church, one casket wheeled out as another was rolled in. This new cluster of deaths has now been harder to handle, Grantlin said, “because we believed, some of us, that this could have been prevented with just a shot in the arm.”

The days ticked by, more people fell ill, and Grantlin said the family drifted into silence about the vaccine. “You just learn not to bring it up anymore,” he said. The hurt and the rifts remain. Some relatives blame others for having discouraged family members from getting the shot. “The deaths deepened the division, and now there are these secret angers,” Grantlin said. “I’m constantly in prayer that we’ll come back together.”

A horrible death

Death doesn’t always bring people together, but Brenda Gould hasn’t seen any other cause of death that has divided people quite like covid has.

Gould, who owns Whitaker Funeral Home in the city of Metter in Georgia, leaves the embalming to her husband, just as her father handled it in earlier years. That allows her time to talk to the families in conversations that have grown more difficult than ever.

She sees shame — people who have to be nudged to tell their relatives that the deceased died of covid. She sees ignorance — people who avoid the news and comfort themselves with the idea that the virus can’t be all that bad, until their relative dies. And she sees a blind faith, a belief that only God, not scientists, will solve the pandemic.

She often sees division after someone dies of covid, with people insisting all too loudly that their way, pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine, pro-mask or anti-mask, is the only way, or people blaming relatives for the deaths of loved ones. “I never thought I’d see the day in America where we didn’t pull together when things got rough,” Gould said.

Candler County, where the ­Whitaker home serves an African American clientele, has one of the highest concentrations of covid deaths in the state of Georgia, which in turn has experienced one of the biggest surges of deaths since the delta variant rampaged across the country. The deaths have hit home — including one man who had worked for the Whitaker home for 20 years — and they have been particularly awful.

“It is a horrible death,” Gould said. “When they get to us, they are often in terrible shape physically. Their bodies have broken down.”

When a family’s anguish erupts over a covid death, it’s often not simply because people disagree about the vaccines, but because arguments over the pandemic bare deeper divisions about basic values.

“These are fundamental values that people see as central to who they are,” said Benjamin Warner, a University of Missouri communications professor who has studied how political disagreements within families undermine relationships. “Their feeling is, we’re not fighting about the vaccine or the president, but about my values and how I see myself as a person.” He said, “It feels like the stakes are life or death. Because they are.”

A lot of anger

Even when people think they have done everything right, the worst can happen, shaking a foundation of hope. W. Wallace Kent Jr., a retired judge and community theater actor who lived with his wife in San Antonio, had followed restrictions throughout the pandemic. He was fully vaccinated, typically wore a mask and was planning to get a booster shot.

But two days before Labor Day, on a trip to Michigan to visit family, just 24 hours after celebrating his grandson’s wedding, largely outdoors with everyone vaccinated, he became tired, developed a fever and took a virus test. It was positive. His daughter, Lisa Cockerill, canceled the celebration the ­family had planned for his 80th birthday during Labor Day. Everyone quarantined and got tested. The only other wedding attendee who tested positive was Kent’s wife, who had never developed symptoms.

By Thursday, Kent’s 32nd wedding anniversary, his condition deteriorated. He was hospitalized. For two weeks, his family could see him only through a hospital room window, speaking through a spotty phone connection. And then he was gone, a loss that would have been devastating at any time, but one that seemed more cruel given Kent’s caution about the virus.

The family conversation turned to how to honor Kent without turning his visitation and funeral into a superspreader event. Kent’s son Bill and his five siblings decided right away that they would limit the number of people during the visitation and then hold a small funeral with only family and an outdoor luncheon. They agreed unanimously to require masks.

“We were all like, ‘Yeah, this is a no-brainer,’ ” Bill said. “ ‘This is personal to us. We are going to ask you to mask.’ ” That could be a controversial decision in Tuscola County, a conservative area on Michigan’s eastern thumb region where the anti-government sentiment is strong and only 51 percent of residents have received one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, compared with 58 percent of the Midwest state as a whole.

Although their father was well known and widely beloved in town, his children said, attendance at the visitation was light. It was a beautiful memorial, Cockerill said, but “kind of bittersweet” because “there would have been a lot more people” without the ongoing pandemic.

Almost all Kent’s siblings, children and grandkids attended. No one who attended reported testing positive. Bill said that was “goal number one.” To have their father die more than a year and a half into the pandemic, even as vaccines were widely available, weighs heavily on the family.

“I have a lot of anger,” Cockerill said. She struggles to see why some people fall ill despite taking every precaution. She has been “very careful as far as who we see, and yet there are people that seem so lackadaisical about it. It makes me angry because Dad did almost everything right.”

A change of heart

After her husband, sheriff’s deputy Christopher Broadhead, died of covid on Aug. 23 at age 32, Elisa Broadhead heard the comments. “Like, ‘Oh, he wasn’t vaccinated,’ ” as if that would diminish the pain for Elisa and their two daughters, who are 1 and 2. Christopher didn’t oppose vaccination but just gotten around to it “because he worked so much,” Elisa said. “He was working up to 16 hours a day so I could stay home with the girls.”

Elisa had also been a deputy sheriff in Polk County in Central Florida until she quit to care for the kids. The Broadheads and most of their friends and colleagues were not vaccinated and wore masks only when a business will require it. Most of them disagree with mask and vaccine mandates.

But for Christopher’s funeral on Aug. 30, his widow required masks and let the sheriff’s office set up a vaccine clinic at the church during the service. Christopher had been scheduled to get his first dose in early August but fell ill with coronavirus complications a few days before, Elisa said.

“I know everyone has their own feelings and opinions on masks,” Elisa said, “but given what I had been through, essentially watching my husband die slowly and painfully . . . it just wasn’t an option to come not masked, since I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.”

About 800 people attended Christopher’s funeral, and Pastor Dan McBride of Victory Church in Lakeland said every person he saw wore a mask. In a state where the governor has fined school boards for requiring masks, this was the first funeral in 18 long months of the pandemic in which McBride saw a family issue a formal mask mandate. “There was no real arm-twisting that had to take place,” the pastor said. “The people just did it.”

Polk County’s sheriff, Grady Judd — a Donald Trump supporter who once promised that if Trump ever visited his county, he wouldn’t have to cover his face — put on a mask and spoke at Christopher’s funeral. The sheriff even recommended that attendees there get vaccinated.

Elisa was proud to use the funeral to get more people vaccinated. “Because even if only one person got a shot that day, that’s one life that was saved,” she said, “and my husband’s life wasn’t lost for nothing.”

Dustin Pantalone got the shot at his friend’s funeral. He and Christopher were classmates at the police academy and worked together in Polk County. Pantalone took a job with the Tampa Police Department.

Pantalone opposes mandates and hadn’t gotten vaccinated because of “the politics around it. I was on the fence. I guess you can say I wanted a little more information that wasn’t tied to a presidential election or anything like that.” But as the delta variant struck Florida, he “went from not knowing anyone that had really been affected to getting a daily notice finding out that multiple people we knew had it or were passing away.”

The night before Christopher’s funeral — the first covid funeral Pantalone and his girlfriend, January Lacy, attended — he decided it was too close to home. “I want you to get the vaccine with me,” Pantalone told Lacy that night. “You can get the vaccine, but I’m not ready,” she replied.

“I know how we both feel about the vaccine,” Pantalone said, “but I also don’t want to die this young. I don’t want to be on my deathbed saying I wish I would have got it.” Lacy would eventually come around.

“It took Chris’s death for us to change our minds,” she said. “I said, if I’m going to do it anywhere, that’s where I want it to be. I feel like it’s a tribute to him.” She cried when she got the shot since “I was nervous and scared. But I’m still here.” Yet the vaccine remains so controversial among friends, Lacy said, “there are certain people I don’t tell that I have the vaccine.”

Lacy also put on a mask for the funeral. “It’s just one of those things,” she said, “like if you are asked to be in your girlfriend’s wedding and she wants everybody’s hair up, everyone puts their hair up. That’s how it was with Elisa at the funeral. If you are against wearing masks, then stay home. I mean, her husband had just passed away from covid, and she did not want the funeral to be an area where it was spread. And I respected that.”

Elisa had seen how covid could spread. When Christopher fell ill, so had she and their two small children. They were in and out of the hospital when Florida was suffering the nation’s worst delta variant surge, when hundreds were dying every day, when hospitals were turning away some patients.

When Elisa dropped Christopher off at the hospital, she had no idea she would never kiss him again. “When he was getting out of the van, I didn’t know that was the last time I would touch him,” she said. She left to get a phone charger. When she got back, she wasn’t allowed in his room.

Now she’s waiting a few more days until it’s 90 days after her own covid infection, when she’ll be allowed to get vaccinated. She still doesn’t agree mandates, but there’s no harshness in her view. “Everybody has the right to feel the way they feel,” Elisa said. “This is about respecting other people’s feelings. You can disagree, but you don’t have to be ugly about it.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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