“I think it makes our grief deeper,” said Addison, 37, a teacher in Waldwick, N.J. Her 44-year-old husband Martin, a speech pathologist at a hospital, died of the coronavirus in April 2020, leaving behind two children, who are now 3 and 1. “As people move forward who haven’t been impacted, I kind of feel like they forget and don’t care about the people whose lives were. You kind of don’t feel cared about.”
After 15 months of surges and shutdowns, vaccines have turned the tide of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Infection rates have plummeted. President Biden has declared that “the light at the end of the tunnel is actually growing brighter and brighter.” Restaurants and bars are reopening to full capacity, and flights are crammed with people excited to finally take postponed vacations or reunite with relatives.
But for millions, there will be no reunions and no return to a pre-pandemic life. Covid has killed nearly 600,000 in the United States and left an estimated 5.4 million grieving. For many of them, watching the country open up feels like the reopening of a wound.
“They are thankful the pandemic is coming to an end, they are thankful there is a vaccine, but . . . I think the quickness with which this happened, and the celebration with which this happened is a little discordant,” said Chris Kocher, founder and executive director of Covid Survivors for Change, a survivors and families advocacy group, adding that because of travel restrictions, some families are only now beginning to gather and mourn.
“The lack of validation is really hard for people — the idea that it’s behind us, the idea that we don’t need to take basic safety precautions,” he said. “We’ve experienced a collective national trauma — how can we celebrate the lives that have been lost?”
For many, the loss is not just psychological but also financial. In some cases, family breadwinners have died.
Addison started the Facebook group Young Widows and Widowers of Covid-19, which has around 600 members. In many cases, “we have lost half our income and in some cases more than half,” Addison said. “Some of us are debating, do we have to sell our homes?”
In Addison’s twice-weekly calls with widows, talk often turns to their kids. An estimated 40,000 under 18 have lost a parent to covid, with effects from the financial to the emotional. Smaller children who don’t understand the finality of death wait at a window for the missing parent to return. Older children worry that the death was somehow their fault, or feel guilty getting vaccinated when their parent didn’t have that opportunity. And while many are in therapy to help deal with the loss, not all families have access to such services.
“Covid is still lingering and people are still dying and getting hospitalized and their lives are forever changed,” she said, noting that newly widowed people continue to join her group even now, with vaccines available.
“It would be nice for politicians to acknowledge the fact that kids are struggling because of this. . . . They’re more focused on, ‘Let’s get back to baseball games and going to a restaurant.’ We’re like an afterthought now.”
Kocher’s group holds a weekly session for people to connect online and talk with counselors, and it is lobbying for federal funds to be directed to covid victims’ families. In August, it is planning a march in New York City to raise awareness, and it is calling on public officials and others to wear yellow hearts as a reminder of those who have fallen ill or died.
Kristin Urquiza helped found a grass-roots organization, Marked By Covid, after her father died of the disease last June. Since the latest loosening of rules, “my phone and email have been blowing up, with people’s reactions to the CDC update and people terrified for their children, people terrified for their neighbors who haven’t had the opportunity to get vaccinated,” said Urquiza, who is co-executive director of the group. “The country really wants to sell this idea that we are charging ahead, we are moving toward normal, [but] there really is no normal to people who have been severely harmed by covid.”
Her group is calling for a national covid memorial day, as well as a victims compensation program and a public acknowledgment of the government’s mistakes in handling the pandemic.
“To know that the president of the U.S. knew that the pandemic was airborne” long before publicly acknowledging it, Urquiza said. “What makes a strong democracy is for people to be paying attention and participate. . . . Medicine is not political and it’s a lot more nuanced than we first thought. This is an opportunity that we can take advantage of.”
Several state legislators have filed resolutions for a covid memorial day. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) have introduced a bill to create an independent covid-19 commission modeled after the 9/11 Commission, which would review “what happened, what went wrong and what we can do better, so we’re prepared for the next public health emergency,” Menendez said in a statement.
But the coronavirus pandemic will be more complicated to mark than a trauma in which the enemies and the losses are more clear-cut, said Jeffrey Olick, a sociology and history professor at the University of Virginia.
An event like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 is different from an ongoing collective trauma like poverty, he said, adding, “Covid is something in between.” It is more like the Vietnam War, he said, threatening“our self-image, the ability to tell a good story about ourselves.”
While some want to construct covid as a shared trauma, others don’t, he said. “Covid is ripe for becoming a controversy over its fragmented commemoration. We have people who are dying in the hospital and with their last gasp are saying that there’s no such thing as covid.”
At the same time, “a lot of people may be feeling ‘My life was torn apart, my family was destroyed, and yet all you people want to do is go to Cancún again.’ ”
Such polarization makes it hard to conceive of a compensation fund for covid, Olick said. “Events are easier to commemorate and to compensate,” he said. “I would say there’s not going to be compensation, because compensation also involves responsibility.”
Olick noted that compensation for 9/11 victims was based on the age and earning potential of those who died; with so many covid victims being of post-retirement age, that would be harder.
Covid is also still ongoing, with societal effects that will continue to reverberate, said Ashton Verdery, a professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University. Older adults who lose a spouse have an elevated mortality risk afterward; adults who lose a parent in midlife are at higher risk for mental health and relationship troubles; and children who lose a parent are substantially less likely to attend college, he said.
When Baltimore resident Stacey Hightower thinks about masks these days, it’s not just about the physical face covering she still wears as a correctional officer. There is also the figurative covering up of the pain she has felt since her husband Mark, 53, died of covid in December.
“I wear a mask, but not for covid,” she said. “Just so people don’t keep saying, ‘Are you okay?’ At this point, I don’t want to keep saying, ‘No, I’m not okay.’ ”
Seeing people pull their masks down and return to public life? “It’s a kick in the gut,” she said. “I understand we have to open back up, but it won’t be normal for us. People are still being careless. The vaccine is not 100 percent effective. . . . People still believe it’s a hoax. When I hear people talk like that I’m like, ‘Do you realize some people didn’t make it?’
“Add in their families, people who lost their love mates, their best friend, their kids. Nobody’s saying anything about them. It’s like, ‘We got the vaccine, so everything’s okay,’ ” she said. “And you’ve got this whole subset of people who are not okay. I just wish people would be more cognizant, more aware that you can lose everything in the blink of an eye.”
But Selvi Clark of Gaithersburg, Md., said she understands people’s eagerness to resume pre-covid activities, even though her husband Casey, 47, a CIA officer, died in January after contracting the virus while on duty abroad.
“I don’t have a problem with people getting excited. Losing Casey has made me feel how precious life is,” she said. “I’m 44 and I have a tombstone with my name on it. . . . It really helps me know I’m going to die.”
For Clark, too, however, even hopeful moments now are laced with sorrow. Two months after her husband died, she went to a mass vaccination site. As she felt the alcohol swab on her arm, she started crying.
“They just touched my arm and said they were so sorry,” she said of the staff. “It was painful for me to get a vaccine . . . and to know that he didn’t get a chance.”
She and her daughters, 13 and 9, receive benefits because her husband died in service to the country. But she thinks there should be mental health services and financial support available for all survivors.
“I think it would be great to have scholarships for children left behind, helping them with college,” she said.
Perhaps the best comparison for covid is AIDS, Olick said — another pandemic that was politicized, with many dismissing it for years as a disease of marginalized groups. He said covid will probably find its way into cultural references such as film and literature and art, as AIDS and 9/11 did.
“It’s worse than war, the lives lost,” Addison said. (Only the American Civil War had a higher number of deaths).
“I want to be able to take my kids somewhere and say, ‘There’s your dad’s name. Your dad’s a hero and there’s his name.’ ”