Death in the family

Willie Russell, my father, breaks down after telling his brothers that their mother would probably die in the next few days of covid-19. (Tina Russell)

Epidemiologists in the United States are anticipating the 600,000th death from covid-19 soon. As terrible as that number is, it does not begin to describe the multiple impacts each one of those deaths can have, especially on large families. Betty Russell, who was 86 when she died, was one of 10 children, mother to seven, grandmother to 15, great-grandmother to 20, and great-great-grandmother to one.

One grandchild, Tina Russell, brought her camera with her when Betty fell ill just before Christmas. Tina joined her father and other members of the Russell family in the house Betty and her husband, Charlie, had built from scratch in southern Illinois. They were not allowed to see Betty in the hospital, so Tina trained her camera on her family, the 21st great-grandchild resting inside her. What has emerged in these photographs is a searing portrait of grief in all its raw, poignant, serene beauty, the depth of loss and the healing power inside a family.

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