How to Grieve During a Pandemic

Our culture resists talking about death. So it’s fallen to the bereaved to demand attention for covid’s human toll — and begin to heal our collective trauma.

They went to see the flags on a Wednesday afternoon in late October. Terihya Bullock and her mother, Tojuana Myles Whitley, approached the blocks-long green in front of RFK Stadium in Washington reverently, as if entering a cemetery, joining other hushed mourners on similar missions. The grass had been planted with thousands of white pennants, one for every person in the United States killed by the coronavirus. Bullock and Myles Whitley wanted to add two more.

Bullock was wearing a mask printed with a picture of her and her husband, Andre L. Bullock Sr., 48, who had worked at a rental car agency and died in early August. A heart-shaped pendant containing some of his ashes hung around her neck. Their 4-year-old son, Amiri, scampered about, occasionally squealing, “I miss Daddy.” Myles Whitley lost her father, Conrad D. Myles Jr., 84, a retired butcher on Capitol Hill, in late July. “They call my father a gentle giant,” Myles Whitley told me. “And they both was the kindest people.”

At a table set up for the purpose, the women got flags and wrote their loved ones’ names, dates of death and a message — “Love U Forever” — before planting their flags among the multitude.

“It’s just a joy to come and see who else — ” Bullock said.

“ — feels the way we feel,” Myles Whitley said, finishing her daughter’s sentence. “Because I went to a part of Virginia day before yesterday and they wasn’t wearing no mask. They wasn’t doing nothing. And I said to myself, ‘Until you feel this pain, until you see this pain, you don’t know. Or you don’t care.’ ”

The flag display was the work of Bethesda-based artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg. White on green, in neat geometric ranks, the panorama had the dignity and startling expanse of Arlington National Cemetery. At one end was a billboard with the updated daily tally of deaths — on this day it was 226,728 — and carrying the message: “In America How could this happen … .” Firstenberg could scarcely keep up with the accelerating toll. She kept stacks of flags on hand for visitors to help fill the swelling acreage of grief.

She originally had a permit to occupy the parade ground on the border between Northeast and Southeast Washington for two weeks ending in early November. But it proved so popular and provided such a vital emotional balm that city officials granted her request to stay through that month. By mid-month, flags filled all the available space and the installation expanded to nearby patches of grass. “This had to happen because people have nowhere to put their grief,” Firstenberg told me. “They need society to acknowledge that they’ve lost a loved one.”

The flag installation was one of nine examples of covid activism that I attended over several weeks in three cities: vigils, marches, protests, art installations. I wanted to understand how America is handling the tsunami of grief washing over it with increasing intensity. Ours is a death-denying culture, uneasy talking about it in the best of circumstances. Now, with the standard rituals for coping with loss — funerals, celebrations of life — eliminated or postponed by social distancing, people are struggling to take the first healthy steps forward in their grief.

The collective sadness is compounded in communities of color, such as the section of Washington where Bullock and Myles Whitley live. There, the coronavirus is causing disproportionate damage, while the parallel scourge of innocent Black people dying at the hands of police or vigilantes is felt most personally.

The mental health consequences of so much sudden death in so short a time could be dire. Based on age patterns in the pandemic’s spread and kinship networks in the United States, a team of sociologists writing in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that nine people will experience the loss of a close relative — defined as a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse or child — for each covid-19 death. This “covid-19 bereavement multiplier” suggests that as many as 2.6 million Americans are mourning the deaths of the 291,000 people the coronavirus has killed. Grief therapists expect a nationwide spike in the level of “complicated grief” — the kind that destabilizes a person’s life in significant ways — and foresee a rise in substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

And yet there have been few formal acknowledgments of the lives lost and of the anguish of those left behind — unlike, say, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which killed approximately 3,000 people. No consoling presidential addresses. No flags at half-staff. Instead, mourners told me they felt half the country treated their losses as no big deal, while the other half reduced them to a partisan talking point. President Trump’s cavalier attitude — such as his comment that aired in early August saying that the death toll “is what it is” — only triggered deeper distress, they said.

There have been few formal acknowledgments of the lives lost and of the anguish of those left behind, and mourners told me they felt half the country treated their losses as no big deal, while the other half reduced them to a partisan talking point.

So it has fallen to the bereaved themselves, and to allies who feel their pain, to create outlets to demand attention and, in the process, begin to heal the collective trauma. Similar to the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s, or the response to school shootings and gun violence in the first two decades of this century, people are turning their grief into action — advocating for a more science-based federal response, stronger encouragement of mask wearing and prioritizing the safety and support of affected groups as the economy reopens. A defining feature of this movement, still in its infancy, is the way it is creating a sense of community for people “marked by covid” — which happens to be the name of one of the more prominent covid activist groups — even as the pandemic continues to subvert traditional forms of fellowship.

One section of the flag display in D.C. had several hundred flags planted by local participants in a nationwide Facebook group, with about 3,300 members, called Covid-19 Loss Support for Family & Friends. Members who live far from Washington asked locals to write the names of loved ones on their behalf and send back pictures of the planted flags.

“We all feel so helpless and powerless. … As horrible as it is to go down there and write names on flags, it feels like you’re helping somebody, because you can’t help the person you lost — you couldn’t even be there with them,” said Tami Stukey, who lost her brother, Carl Welcome Stukey Jr., 79, to covid-19 in August. “My brother would have loved it if I could do some good for somebody.”

These expanding circles of comfort are what Sabila Khan of Jersey City, N.J., hoped for when she co-founded the Facebook group. Her father, Shafqat Khan, 76, a leader of the Pakistani American community in Jersey City, died in April. The family watched his funeral on their phones. “The fact that this show of community has been left to this very traumatized group of people ... I find that at once beautiful but also horrifying,” Khan told me. “We’re not politicians. We’re going through grief. We’re average, normal people. And we have to do it.”

Beyond efforts at healing, acknowledgment and more-effective public health policy, the covid activists and mourners are aiming for one more thing: “If we are able to amplify and elevate the stories of our loved ones and the trauma that we’re going through, it might save someone else. It might stem this pandemic,” Khan says. “I don’t want my father’s death to be in vain.”

Terihya Bullock, left; her mother, Tojuana Myles Whitley; and Bullock’s son Amiri, 4, at a flag installation in Washington memorializing those who’ve died of covid-19. Bullock’s husband, Andre L. Bullock Sr., 48, died in early August. Myles Whitley lost her father, Conrad D. Myles Jr., 84, a retired butcher on Capitol Hill, in late July.

The pandemic is the cause of this grief, but its isolating nature exacerbates the experience. Besides constraining formal rituals, it interrupts a vital path toward healing: gathering loved ones around you, connecting with your community and leaning on others. “We don’t grieve well alone,” Kathy Shear, a psychiatrist and founding director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University, told me. “Physical touch means so much.”

Shear is a leader in the field of complicated grief, also known as prolonged grief disorder. While we all may experience acute sadness or anguish after a loved one’s death, most of us will eventually find a way to make a healthy place for this grief in the background of our lives, even as we never find that mythical “closure.” But if the grief still preoccupies people after a year or more, to the point where it interferes with daily life, it can be diagnosed as prolonged grief disorder — the most challenging form of grief.

Under normal circumstances, more than 10 percent of cases of bereavement will lead to prolonged grief disorder. In the coming year, though, as enough time passes for pandemic-related diagnoses of complicated grief to be made, “the rate of prolonged grief disorder is probably going to be about doubled, which is a huge number,” Shear says. Applying the sociologists’ covid-19 bereavement multiplier that every death will affect nine close relatives, those experiencing complicated grief could number in the hundreds of thousands.

The pandemic is studded with factors primed to raise the risk of complicated grief, Shear and other grief specialists told me. The deaths are unexpected and shrouded in unanswered questions about a loved one’s last hours. Some mourners are racked with guilt — perhaps they brought the virus into the household. Others are hurt by political voices suggesting the deaths are an acceptable price for reopening the economy. One of the biggest pitfalls, therapists say, is getting stuck on alternative scenarios where the death didn’t have to happen: If only more people wore masks or the deceased had worn a mask; if only doctors had known as much about treating the illness early in the pandemic as they do now; if only public officials had given better direction.

“It’s hard to find meaning when people are dying unnecessarily,” says Sonya Lott, a psychologist with an online practice in multiple states who specializes in complicated grief. “It’s common for people with complicated grief to think it wasn’t fair that their loved one died, they didn’t have to die this way. In this case, it’s true. That’s a complicating factor.”

Lott is one of relatively few African American therapists in the field and says the African American community deserves access to culturally competent grief support. “There’s the overlay of the ongoing murders of Black men and women,” she says. “Black people, we are experiencing more trauma on top of the pandemic, and that makes us more prone to complicated grief.”

The Rev. Frederick Miller, left, associate minister, and the Rev. Johnnie M. Green Jr., senior pastor of Harlem’s Mount Neboh Baptist Church, where 13 members have died of covid-19, including Miller’s mother, and nearly two dozen have fallen ill, including Green.

Pauline Boss, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, coined the phrase “ambiguous loss” in the 1970s to refer to the experience of families of soldiers missing in action, who had no proof of their loved ones’ fates. That concept is relevant today: For people who died in the pandemic, “there was a death certificate, so there was certainty,” says Boss, but “there was ambiguity about everything else. You wonder, What were his last words? Was he in pain? Is that really the body of my loved one? Because you weren’t there to follow it, to see the remains. These are haunting, unending questions.”

The phenomenon, adds Boss — who is writing a book with the working title “Ambiguous Loss in the 2020 Pandemic” — is wider than just the families directly affected by the disease. People are grieving losses with dimensions more elusive than death: loss of security, freedom, ways of life, family milestones, rites of passage. “The pandemic has given us a barrage of ambiguous losses which are difficult to recognize,” Boss says. “People wonder why they’re feeling sad, anxious and angry. It’s because we’re grieving.”

Taking action and telling stories, like the covid mourners who are standing up for and supporting their community, can be helpful for grieving, say grief therapists. “You have to accept what you can’t change and change what you can, and figure out where that boundary is,” Shear told me. “But just to keep focusing on [the loss] and thinking how bad it is — that seems to interfere with the process.”

What we are learning abruptly — and at a larger scale than at any time in recent history — is that, like love, grief must find its proper expression.

At the same time, academic grief experts are doing their own kind of professional activism to alleviate the crisis. A promising example is a new collaboration between researchers at Columbia, including Shear, and a faith-based civil rights organization with leadership in Harlem called Mobilizing Preachers and Communities. The project aims to refine digital tools and other means to buttress the work of pastors and community caretakers who are battling the social and emotional toll of the pandemic in one of the hardest-hit parts of New York. The project will also look at the impact of racism on covid-related grief.

Covid “had a devastating impact on our congregational life,” says the Rev. Johnnie M. Green Jr., president of the preachers group and senior pastor of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, where 13 members have died of the disease and nearly two dozen have fallen ill, including Green. The deaths have been as difficult as anything he has faced in 40 years of ministry, he says, in part because he couldn’t provide the usual pastoral care, such as deathbed consolations and ministering to families in person.

On top of that, Harlem ministers are struggling with their own grief even as they are called on to comfort their flock. The Rev. Frederick Miller, associate minister at Mount Neboh, lost his mother, Shirley Miller, 70, a deaconess at the church who worked nearly three decades as a school crossing guard. She did not get to meet his infant son, born shortly after her death, though Miller sees his mother in the baby’s expressions. “I’ve officiated over I don’t know how many funerals over the last seven to eight months [while] grieving my own [loss],” Miller says. “Sometimes I’ve done families that lost mothers, and here I am standing, trying to comfort them — and trying to find something to comfort myself as well.”

In Philadelphia, 862 chairs — one for every 10 of more than 8,600 deaths reported in Pennsylvania at the time — sit empty as part of an installation on Independence Mall in October.

“The mark of a civilized human is the ability to look at a column of numbers and weep,” goes the line attributed to philosopher Bertrand Russell (who may or may not have said it). That’s the challenge of activism during the pandemic: how to expose the human tragedy buried within mind-numbing statistics. The white flags in D.C. were one solution. Another was a moving display of empty white chairs I visited in late October in Philadelphia.

A group called Covid Survivors for Change set up 862 chairs — one for every 10 of more than 8,600 deaths reported in Pennsylvania at the time — on Independence Mall. The network of survivors and victims’ families had done something similar earlier in the month in Washington, placing 20,000 chairs on the Ellipse to mark the national death toll back then of more than 200,000. The group had planned similar displays in other cities while also holding weekly support groups for people struggling in isolation.

The Philadelphia event was sparsely attended, by design. Mass gatherings can’t be part of this movement. (Many more people stood on line to see the Liberty Bell.) The notable lack of attendees “spotlights how disruptive the pandemic is,” Chris Kocher, executive director of Covid Survivors for Change, told me. “Normally you would have people sitting in these seats in mourning, and grieving together.” He continued, “Look over there, and in the course of today we’ll add, you know, three, four or five chairs just in Pennsylvania alone.”

Kocher launched the Everytown Survivor Network in 2015 to amplify the stories of thousands of families affected by gun violence. Five years later, as he watched the pandemic devastate his community of Queens in New York City, he saw parallels between the crises. He took a leave from gun violence work to help provide similar support to covid survivors and families of those lost. “When we suffer collective loss and we suffer national trauma at the level and scale that we are, what we do is, we come together as a nation, as a community to support each other, to heal, to remember or to memorialize,” he says. “And none of that has happened. Some of that is because we can’t be together in person. And some of that is because our leaders are completely dismissive of it.”

Instead of drawing crowds to Independence Mall, the empty white chairs attracted cameras for the evening news, and for a Facebook Live feed watched by 8,300 people. “We gather virtually for a simple but very important reason,” Kocher told the assembly. “And we say to you that your loved ones matter. Your stories matter. The way that your lives have been changed forever matters deeply. And while each individual story represents the heartbreak of dreams that will remain forever unfilled, collectively they have a power to inspire Americans to demand more from our elected leaders in Washington.”

In Washington in October, an installation by Bethesda-based artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg featuring thousands of white flags, one for every person in the United States killed by the coronavirus.

Members of four families who lost loved ones also addressed the cameras. As I listened to their remarks and talked with them separately, I was struck by how the challenges to mourning these losses are a key element of 2020 pandemic eulogies. The departed were robbed of the final grace the living owe the dead — a proper home-going — and coming to terms with that will deepen and lengthen the nation’s sorrow.

“Loss is such a heavy burden in and of itself,” Liz Feeney told the group. Her father, Ray “Doc” Dougherty, 70, an Army veteran and a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier for nearly four decades, died in July. “The circumstances that come with loss due to covid-19 make that burden almost impossible to bear. There are no visits. There are no meaningful goodbyes, no last ‘I love you.’ And living with the fact that my dad died surrounded by strangers instead of his loving family will haunt me until I take my last breath. There are over 220,000 stories just like my family’s — each unique in their own way, but bonded in the cruelest of grief that I’ve yet to find adequate words to describe.”

One of the hardest things to deal with, Feeney told me, can be the attitude of some people who haven’t experienced close brushes with the virus. “People have grown so tired of covid they’ve become callous in a way,” she says. In their frustration, they minimize the threat, say the numbers are inflated, even call the pandemic a hoax. “We’re faced with such animosity at times. The fact that people are constantly downplaying the very thing that caused your family so much pain just adds so much insult to injury. It’s almost unbearable.”

For survivors like Noe Sepulveda, the new deaths are a constant reminder of their own losses. Sepulveda recovered from covid, but his mother, Teresa Sepulveda, 73, an immigrant from Mexico who became a shoemaker and raised six children, died in May. “Here’s another family that’s suffering like I am,” he said. “The wave of pain that is coming through the country is relentless. It hasn’t stopped. It’s not like death and recovery. It’s death, death, death. Day after day after day.”

Finding occasions like the remembrance on Independence Mall to share the stories behind the statistics and demand action is its own therapy. Carol Lewis and Jeff Green spoke of their father, Hiram J. Green, an Army veteran who became a computer field technician. He was living in a veterans home when he contracted the coronavirus and died in April at age 86. Lewis told me, “I’ve been in the house for all these months yelling at the TV. … You can’t heal. You can’t grieve. ... You have no people to be in community with that are sharing and going through the same thing.”

She heard about Covid Survivors for Change just a few days before the event and seized the chance to tell the family’s story in public for the first time. “I’ve just been praying for God to give me an opportunity and show me what is the purpose you have for me, what is my path. Having the opportunity to share this, to extend comfort to other people out there, is really a part of healing for me.”

Owoade Ayorinde, creative organizer for Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), left; Jawanna Hardy, center, founder of Guns Down Friday; and Marcus Isaiah, also of UAEM, during a rally to advocate for widespread, affordable access to coronavirus vaccines, outside the Health and Human Services headquarters in Washington.

Americans have turned grief into action during public health emergencies before. On Sunday, Oct. 11, 1992, hundreds of people marched toward the White House carrying urns and bags filled with the ashes of loved ones killed by HIV/AIDS. Through tears and angry shouts, they poured the ashes onto the White House lawn. It was the most blunt and direct way they could think of to confront leaders with the reality of their losses, and to protest what they considered the sluggish and misguided federal response to the epidemic under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

The Ashes Action, as it became known, “was one of the most powerful moments of activism in history,” says Peter Staley, an early leader of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the AIDS advocacy group that organized the demonstration. “We turned our grief into activism.”

That same weekend, the AIDS Memorial Quilt was spread out upon a vast swath of the Mall in Washington. The panels were dedicated to people who had died of HIV/AIDS, presenting a searing portrait of collective grief that was designed to put a human face on the statistics. The quilt “had a profound effect not only on the way people viewed the epidemic, but also the way people viewed gay people — you know, the notion that these folks were expendable,” says activist Cleve Jones, who organized the creation of the quilt. “There’s some language around this current pandemic that really I find just terribly disturbing, which is basically ... ‘You don’t have to worry about it. It only kills old people.’ And every time I hear that, I hear the echo of, ‘We don’t have to worry about it. It only kills gay people.’ Neither of those statements is true.”

Covid activist groups are following the template of patient advocacy that ACT UP invented, and ACT UP veterans are lending a hand. “Whenever a new epidemic hit in the U.S., we’ve often felt a kind of call to action,” Staley told me. A new generation of AIDS advocates provided “activist muscle” to push officials in New York to shut down the city early in the pandemic, according to Staley. They’ve lobbied federal officials to pursue therapeutic treatments more aggressively and not to cut corners on the safety of a vaccine.

“It’s very hard to do the type of outdoors, visual actions during the age of covid. You’ve got to be very creative and safe about it,” Staley says. “The Ashes Action, that’s a very unsafe action now with a respiratory disease. So it’d be hard to re-create. ... [And] it can take a long time to move through grief and the shock of death to go into an activist mode. It took ACT UP a long time.”

The parallels between the two public health emergencies are unmistakable — right down to the fact that Anthony S. Fauci has been the key federal scientific figure in both, as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. After getting arrested outside his office in the early 1990s, AIDS activists grew to consider Fauci an ally, and today, covid activists respect his science-based approach.

The Rev. Glenna J. Huber, rector of D.C.’s Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, during a vigil called Mourning Into Unity in Washington in October.

But the epidemics are not the same. While ACT UP fought epic battles to reform the way drug research was conducted and speed delivery of novel therapies, a covid vaccine already appears to be on its way, even if effective therapeutics are lagging. And covid activists have not been forced to become amateur pharmaceutical scientists. They are more focused on public health policy — guidance to wear masks, measures to address racial disparities — along with providing grief support, honoring the dead and calling attention to the toll. Covid Survivors for Change, which displayed the chairs in Philadelphia, launched a petition demanding a data-driven pandemic response, calling on all elected officials to model safety behaviors like wearing masks and advocating for treatment resources for those suffering the aftereffects of covid.

Staley and Jones both mentioned the work of Kristin Urquiza, co-founder of the advocacy group Marked by Covid. Urquiza’s father, Mark Anthony Urquiza, a healthy 65-year-old with a front-line manufacturing job in Phoenix, died of covid in late June. Early in the pandemic, he had strictly followed social distancing guidelines. But as someone who voted for Trump in 2016 and supported Arizona’s Republican governor, he believed them when they said it was safe to go out again in the spring, according to his daughter. He died several weeks later. The “honest obituary” Urquiza wrote, blaming his death on “the carelessness of the politicians who continue to jeopardize the health of brown bodies through a clear lack of leadership,” went viral, and a short video address by her was played at the Democratic National Convention in August.

“I didn’t feel like I had a choice,” Urquiza told me of her decision to launch Marked by Covid shortly after her father’s death. The group’s priorities include preventing other pandemics, addressing health inequities in light of communities of color being hit hardest, providing restitution to survivors and victims of covid, and creating spaces for mourning and remembrance. “Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about is just how do we impart to future generations the truth about what happened and why,” Urquiza says. She helped organize a National Week of Mourning in early October and led daily virtual vigils during the week that were watched by thousands online. The activism has also helped her through her grief, forging friendships with a tight circle of women who have all lost parents to covid. Strangers until a few months ago, now “we refer to ourselves as siblings in grief,” she says. “It’s this group we don’t want to be a part of but we can’t imagine going through this without.”

No single group sums up this diffuse movement, and new efforts are popping up as the pandemic continues. The grass-roots Survivor Corps works to support people who have had the virus and to mobilize them to participate in research. Another coalition is pushing to ensure widespread, affordable access to any vaccines. In late October, the groups staged a rally to “free the vaccine” outside the Health and Human Services headquarters in Washington.

On another day in October, a vigil called Mourning Into Unity convened in Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House. It was one of dozens being held by faith communities across the country and streamed online. From behind a table set with candles, as the sun was about to set, the Rev. Glenna J. Huber, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Washington, addressed the group of about 50: “Knowing that this virus has impacted Black, Brown and Indigenous communities disproportionately, knowing that the pandemic of racism continues to allow for the dehumanization of Black and Brown people ... has given us what many feel is an insurmountable amount of grief to process. We mourn the loss of trust in science. ... We mourn for our democracy.”

At times covid activism could sound like electoral mobilization. Most mourners I met criticized the president. They assumed that a new tone coming from the White House would make a difference and appreciated Joe Biden’s campaign promises of a stronger covid response. And yet they vowed that Biden’s election would not halt their efforts, just as AIDS activists didn’t let up when Democrats came to power. “Activism needs to stay active to not only ensure that the Biden camp makes good on its promises, but also works together to truly respond in kind to the challenge at hand,” Urquiza says.

“I am under no illusion that the election of Joe Biden is going to solve this problem,” notes Jones, “but it will be far more likely that we can respond again with science, compassion and common sense.”

Attendees at the vigil, held at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House. It was one of more than two dozen being held by faith communities across the country and streamed online.

The grief will abide long after Election Day. The community of mourners is growing by the thousands every week. “Grief is the form love takes when someone we love dies,” says Shear, the psychiatrist at Columbia. What we are learning abruptly — and at a larger scale than at any time in recent history — is that, like love, grief must find its proper expression.

The simplest expressions can be the most powerful. One evening in October, I walked south from Times Square in Manhattan to a small park on Broadway, where several people were sitting at tables and weaving yellow and white roses into fragrant flower chains. I joined in. Artist Kristina Libby taught us how to loop twine around the stems to connect the blossoms. Since April, Libby has been leaving hearts fashioned from rose garlands around New York City. She told me that she started the Floral Heart Project when she had the same epiphany as everyone in this new movement: “In this moment when we don’t have normal collective ways of mourning, how can we do something?” The company heard of her work and began providing flowers. ( President Amit Shah told me later that the pandemic has coincided with a sharp rise in the number of “thinking of you” messages being sent, which he took as a sign of people trying to pierce the isolation so many are feeling.)

As we worked on the roses, Francesca Castellanos told the story of her sister Fatima Castellanos Schmidt, 57, a fourth-grade teacher who died of covid in April. Schmidt chose to work in the city rather than a suburban district because she wanted to help poor and Latino students, sometimes buying them supplies with her own money. Her sister thinks she caught the virus because the city shut down schools too late. “I don’t feel that they’re giving enough recognition to all of those people who have died,” Castellanos said. “They weren’t partying out there, they weren’t being irresponsible. They were people that went out to work. And we didn’t protect them.”

EmyLou Solomon Rodriguez and her sister, Cathrine Solomon, lost both their parents to covid in the spring. Antonio Solomon, 71, had a Navy career, then worked for the Postal Service; Estelita Solomon, 72, was a registered nurse for 39 years. Cathrine Solomon recovered from covid but experiences lingering effects; she is a member of Survivor Corps. The sisters were finally going to be able to hold a memorial service for their parents in the coming days, months after their deaths, but it would be constrained by social distancing. “I flip-flop between sad and angry, sad and angry,” Rodriguez said. “We feel like this is part of our healing process, which is to grieve with others.”

As it grew dark, the mourners took turns addressing the small gathering, sharing more stories. Fiana Tulip brought her 1-year-old daughter, Lua, in a stroller. Tulip’s mother, Isabelle Papadimitriou, 64, was a respiratory therapist in Dallas. When she started feeling symptoms at the end of June, she texted a niece about an incident that happened at work: One of her patients had covid. When the man’s daughter visited before his diagnosis, she refused to wear a mask, saying, “her president doesn’t wear one why should she,” according to the text, which Tulip shared on Twitter. Tulip’s mother died July 4.

“I don’t want to be angry. I want to be sad, and I want to cry,” Tulip told me before the floral ceremony. And now, in the presence of all these people looking for the same peace, she suggested how maybe they — we — can make that transition together. “In order to win this war against covid, we must come together as a united front to support each other,” she said. “This isn’t me versus you. It’s us versus the virus.”

“We have to act collectively if we are going to save each other, and save our lives,” she continued. “Those we have lost to covid deserve notice, and they deserve reverence, more than the steady increase in this number that we keep hearing about.” It’s time, Tulip said, “to remember what has happened so far,” to “honor the fallen, and spread love and warmth in a world that is riddled with pain and that feels so empty right now.”

Update: This story was updated on December 11 to reflect the rising number of deaths from covid-19.

David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.

Designed by Twila Waddy. Photos edited by Dudley M. Brooks.

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