It’s still hard to grasp just how much suffering the US has experienced this year.
The United States will soon reach a grim milestone: 200,000 American deaths from COVID-19. That’s 200,000 mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins, friends, and community members who’ve lost their lives due to the novel coronavirus in just over six months.
The number is staggering. It’s a number that’s hard to fathom. It’s more than 67 times the number of Americans who died during the 9/11 attacks, and more than three times the number of people lost during the entire Vietnam War.
Even if we sit with that for a minute, it’s still hard to grasp just how much suffering we’ve experienced this year. Our brains struggle to process tragedies and suffering on that scale. While we often view one death as a tragedy, we struggle to conjure the same reaction to death on such a massive scale. They become a statistic.
“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will,” Mother Teresa said.
As the number of US deaths soared over the summer, the nation seemed to adopt this mindset. We compartmentalized. Collectively, led by the federal government, the US response to such incalculable loss appears to have been to ignore, downplay, or normalize it.
At least, that’s what Alex Goldstein believes.
“The scope of it is just so big that people just kind of disassociate,” Goldstein, a 36-year-old resident of Waltham, Massachusetts, said in an interview.
Goldstein launched the Faces of COVID project in March to do his part to put names and faces to the scope of the tragedy—to bear witness. Each day, Goldstein shares the stories of a handful of Americans who’ve died from COVID-19. To date, he’s shared about 2,500 stories.
“One of the real purposes of this project is to make it harder to disassociate, to say, ‘If you are willing, bring empathy to the table and look at these folks—just for a second,’” Goldstein said.
The project has taken off and has become a source of comfort for many, including Goldstein himself.
“It has made me feel much more intimately connected with the scope of what is happening,” he said. “I think I feel the way that I wish everybody felt right now, which is that they had some kind of intimate connection to what was going on and that it wasn’t this abstract talking points debate between the different sides, but a communal insistence on lifting up people that we’re losing.”
Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father Mark to COVID-19 in June, launched a similar effort called Marked by COVID, which seeks to create a space for those in mourning.
“We really wanted to make sure that we weren’t losing the human aspect of the lives lost here in the US to COVID-19,” Urquiza said. “We’re now working with dozens of families and individuals across the country—those who have lost folks just like me, but others who have been impacted or marked by COVID in another way, such as survivors of COVID.”
COURIER, like many other media outlets, has covered the coronavirus pandemic extensively. We’ve written about it from national and local perspectives, examining the big picture, but also documenting how the virus has impacted individuals, families, and communities—physically, emotionally, mentally, and economically.
When it became clear the US would reach the grim milestone of 200,000 deaths, we decided, much like Goldstein and Urquiza, to “look at the one.” To put names and faces to the horrific loss of life the US has endured. To zoom in and understand that each of these deaths isn’t just a statistic, but the loss of a person who mattered.
As part of this effort, we spoke to three Americans, including Urquiza, who lost parents to COVID-19. We asked them about what their parents were like, the lives they lived, and what mourning their deaths has been like.
These are their stories.
Isabelle Papadimitriou died in a Dallas, Texas, hospital on July 4. She only had 11 months with her granddaughter before COVID-19 took her life.
Three weeks after losing his wife to cancer, George Washington Jr. was in the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms. He died on June 24.
Mark Urquiza had recently been given a clean bill of health by his doctor. He lived in a state that reopened early in the pandemic. After a three-week battle with COVID-19, he passed away on June 30.