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The Lost Americans
Nearly one million people have died from Covid in the United States. Many of the loved ones they left behind are grieving in a nation that wants to move on.
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By Julie Bosman
A widow in North Carolina whose husband died of Covid-19 feels crushed when she hears people talk casually about life in America returning to normal. I will never go back to normal, she thinks to herself. I still feel as though I am missing a limb.
A man in New York City who lost his wife to Covid ruminates on the days before she got sick two years ago. He worries that he brought the virus into their apartment, wonders if her death was his fault and asks the unanswerable: Why did he survive Covid, but she did not?
A woman in Minnesota whose mother died from the coronavirus is mired in what she calls “Covid grief.” It deepens when she sees the pandemic mentioned on Facebook, when someone says how happy they are to be reuniting with loved ones again, when she is forced to listen to chatter of masks or politics or vaccines.
“There’s a reminder of how she died, literally every single day, multiple times a day,” said Erin Reiner, whose mother, Gwen Wilson, was a champion bowler and quilter in Kansas until her death at the age of 72.
For more than two years, Americans have made their way through a pandemic that has upended plans, brought tumult and despair, and sickened millions.
But one group has been forced onto a separate path. These are the loved ones of the nearly one million people in the United States who have now died of Covid-19, a catastrophic toll that reflects a death rate higher than in almost any other wealthy country.
These families have walked a path in isolation, mourning and anger. They are carrying a grief that feels lonely, permanent and agonizingly removed from the country’s shared journey.
In dozens of interviews, people across America who have lost family members, spouses and friends to Covid described how they have experienced the pandemic, from the fearful unknowns of the early weeks to this moment, with a reopened nation moving forward, even as more than 300 people are dying every day.
They shared a dispiriting feeling: that the people they loved have been rendered invisible in a country eager to put the pandemic in the past. For now, there is no enduring national memorial to the people who have died, no communal place to gather and mourn. Many families are wondering whether the country views the deaths of their loved ones with real compassion — or indifference.
To these Americans, there are the people who lost someone to Covid, and the people who did not.
“They can’t walk in our shoes,” Ms. Reiner said. “For us, the pandemic isn’t just this blip in our history. People talk about it like it’s such an inconvenience — we don’t get to do this, we don’t get to have this celebration. I only wish that’s all it was for us, for me, for the countless other families.”
In the chaos and confusion of the spring of 2020, Shubham Chandra was frantic and fearful over the sudden illness of his father, Dr. Mukul Chandra. The coronavirus was spreading across the globe, a terrifying and little understood threat. Coronavirus tests were scarce and hospitals were inundated.
Then he was faced with a fresh agony: The hospital would not allow him to visit his father throughout his battle with Covid.
“That whole period is just like a black blur to me,” said Mr. Chandra, an employee of a health care start-up. He was sleeping intermittently and lost 15 pounds from stress while trying to understand a virus that Americans did not yet possess a language to discuss.
There are certain moments that he remembers vividly, and painfully.
As Dr. Chandra’s condition worsened, he was transported to the Cleveland Clinic. His son could only watch from the ground as the helicopter lifted into the air.
“I just remember standing there thinking, ‘That’s not fair,’” Mr. Chandra said. “That would be one of the worst moments I remember going through. There’d be so many worse moments after that, but I remember feeling like, God, that’s not right.”
A bench dedicated to Dr. Mukul Chandra along the path he used to bike.Credit…Josh Chaney for The New York Times
Because Dr. Chandra’s family members could not see him in person, they recorded daily cassette tapes of their voices and mailed them to the hospital: praying, sending encouragement, discussing what meals they had cooked or articles they had read. Nurses played the tapes at his bedside.
“We believed that hearing our voices would be the thing that called him back from the edge,” Mr. Chandra said. “I would have given anything in the world to just be sitting by his side and telling him, ‘Dad, I love you, you’re going to make it through this.’”
In those months, people across the country were huddling together in their homes as businesses closed in response to the virus. But families who lost loved ones found themselves unbearably split apart, trying to be close to the ailing — but denied permission to be near.
Even now, they are burdened by memories of feeling powerless, being kept out of hospitals, picturing their spouses and children and parents and siblings alone in their final days and wondering if their presence could have brought comfort.
In the confounding days of April 2020, Laura Jackson, a social worker and mother of three, had already canceled a 50th birthday party in Miami for her husband, Charlie, an Army veteran who loved music and travel. When he developed a cough and fever, Ms. Jackson, who heard that private hospitals were so full that they were turning away Covid patients, convinced him to go to the closest V.A. hospital.
“There was so much fear and confusion and disbelief,” she said of that period, which seemed to take on an unreal quality, when days moved at warp speed and in slow motion at the same time.
The separation from her husband in his last days haunts her.
On the early afternoon that Ms. Jackson took him to the hospital, she parked in the lot, barred from entering the emergency department. A nurse came to the car and handed over her husband’s belongings: cellphone, wallet, watch.
“I could not leave,” said Ms. Jackson, who felt as though she were physically rooted to this spot, in the driver’s seat of her car, next to the building where her husband lay.
As night fell, her phone rang. It was a nurse again, asking her to cast her eyes in the direction of the patient rooms that overlooked the darkened parking lot.
We’re going to turn the light in Charlie’s room on and off, the nurse told her. Ms. Jackson looked at the building and spotted the flashes.
“I knew exactly where he was,” she said.
After his death, three weeks later, Ms. Jackson was required to wear full protective equipment, including gloves and a face shield, before she entered the room.
“They wouldn’t let me touch him,” she said. “I didn’t know if he was warm, if he was cold. I just had a barrier stuck between us.”
From her husband’s side, she called her children on FaceTime so that they could see their father before his body was taken away.
When Kaitlyn Urenda thinks back to the summer of 2020, she remembers the phone call that cleaved her life into two.
Her mother, Genevieve Martinez, a nurse who worked in an elementary school in El Paso, was calling in early July to tell her that she had Covid symptoms. The virus quickly spread through the entire family.
“My brother, his wife, their kids, my mom, my grandma, my aunt and my cousin and her kids,” Ms. Urenda said. “It was like their little village was on fire.”
In many communities across America that summer, the tight vigilance meant to slow the spread of the virus was falling away.
Frustration mounted over the restrictions placed on daily life, the rules about social distancing, wearing masks, when businesses could be open or closed. People were out in public, socializing, defiant and fed up with staying at home, said Ms. Urenda, who lives in Dallas.
“I think people started living day-to-day,” she said. “It was very much like, ‘Well, we better do this now, because in a week you might not be able to go to a restaurant.’”
Ms. Martinez, who was 62, died in a hospital that month. Ms. Urenda was overcome with grief, but also anger. She was outraged by the medical treatment her mother, grandmother and aunt received. And she was furious that Texas officials loosened restrictions early in the pandemic, a move that she believes left people like her mother at risk.
“We paid the price for it,” said Ms. Urenda, who has worked on behalf of Covid victims’ families with the advocacy group Marked by Covid.
Americans have clashed over the virus and how the country should handle it, and have confronted these questions for many months, often in emotional terms. For those who lost loved ones, though, the argument is much more painful.
Lynnetta Ford, who lived with her 74-year-old mother, Linda Benson, in Oklahoma City, thinks of what could have gone differently back in the fall of 2020.
“You think, small-town Oklahoma, we won’t get it here,” Ms. Ford said. “But every time we looked at the news, it was getting worse.”
She hired a home health aide to take care of her mother and stopped bringing her to the senior center.
But Ms. Ford could no longer stay home, as she did early in the pandemic.
After being furloughed from her job that spring, she was now back in the office, working in person. One day, a co-worker who had been chatting in Ms. Ford’s cubicle went home sick; soon Ms. Ford was coughing, with stomach pain. They both tested positive for the virus.
Her mother, Ms. Benson, caught Covid shortly after.
“It was really difficult for me,” Ms. Ford said. “I felt that my co-worker shouldn’t have come into my cubicle if she wasn’t feeling good.”
Months later, she still fights feeling of resentment mixed with worry and agonizes over her belief that her return to work had left her mother more vulnerable to Covid.
In Kerrville, Texas, the Mehendale family knew that vaccines were around the corner as they approached the holiday season of 2020. They kept their Thanksgiving celebration small: Rachel Mehendale and her husband drove from nearby Austin to her parents’ home, and even around the house, they wore masks, not wanting to take any chances.
The Brothers family in Centreville, Va., got together in December to bake Christmas cookies, an annual tradition. In Tucson, Ariz., Matt Emory and his fiancé, Luis Celaya, skipped the usual Thanksgiving gathering with extended family, but in December gathered on a back porch to visit with a few relatives.
There was reason to be optimistic: The advent of Covid vaccines at the end of 2020 signaled hope, a sign that a country weary from death and disruption would soon emerge from the pandemic.
But the virus didn’t stop, and family members of those who died in this period were left with a bitter lament: If they had only had the opportunity to get vaccinated, they might still be alive.
As these families mourned, many Americans were lining up to get shots, and celebrating with photos on Instagram.
The virus claimed Dr. Anand Mehendale in Kerrville a few weeks after he began feeling ill on Thanksgiving weekend, a Covid infection he likely contracted at work.
“I remember my dad telling us, I’m so excited the vaccines are coming out and we’ll all get vaccinated and we can just go back to meeting up with each other,” said his daughter, Rachel, who is also a doctor.
Her own first vaccine was scheduled for the day after her father died.
Grief-stricken, she wanted to cancel it, but her mother insisted that she receive the shot as planned. She wept after the injection.
“It was wonderful and horrible,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘My dad was so close.’”
Mr. Emory vividly remembers his last visit in a Tucson hospital with Mr. Celaya, his fiancé. He told him what he would have said during their wedding vows: that Mr. Celaya changed his life. That he was perfect. And that Mr. Emory loved him.
Mr. Celaya, 33, died from Covid-19 on Jan. 4, 2021. “It was just a couple of weeks after Luis passed that the vaccines became available,” Mr. Emory said. “He wasn’t able to get one.”
The patriarch of the Brothers family in Centreville, Va., Robert Brothers, a Marine veteran who was 78, died on Jan. 16, 2021, just weeks after contracting the virus in December. His daughter, Nicole Yoder, believes he was infected at the family’s cookie-baking gathering.
“People say stupid stuff to you, like, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten together for cookies,’” she said. “You feel a little shame. But if we didn’t go make cookies, we wouldn’t have had those memories that last time.”
In January 2021, the country’s death toll peaked in the pandemic’s largest wave of fatalities. More than 3,300 Americans were lost each day.
Nichole Waltrich is still struggling with the unbearable clash in realities that confronted her during the summer of 2021.
She was living in Pilsen, one of Chicago’s most lively neighborhoods, packed with restaurants, live music and art. When her 23-year-old sister, Emily, died from Covid that June, the energy around her suddenly felt cruel.
“People were outside my door partying and not wearing masks,” she said. “I’m still trying to deal with that dissonance.”
For many Americans, last summer began in a burst of joy, a lull in the pandemic that suggested it was waning at last. Even in cities like Chicago and New York, many residents had shed masks, returned to eating out and embarked on vacations.
But the families whose loved ones were dying of Covid were in anguish amid the country’s celebratory mood. What started as an exuberant summer ended in the Delta variant ravaging the South, causing more than 2,000 deaths each day.
“It seemed like things were getting a lot better,” said Sharon Noland, a palliative-care nurse practitioner in Mount Pleasant, S.C. “And then out of the blue, here comes this Delta variant.”
Ms. Noland is still feeling the pain of that shift.
Her 85-year-old mother, Connie Stockard, was a big personality who introduced herself as “Connie from Kentucky” to new friends in her retirement community in Bluffton, S.C. Ms. Stockard was convinced that the threat had passed, since no one she knew had gotten the virus. She did not receive a Covid vaccine, despite her daughter’s pleas. Besides, she told Ms. Noland, she barely left her house except for weekly church services.
But the virus broke out at church, with even the minister falling seriously ill.
Ms. Stockard died in a hospital last August. Months later, Ms. Noland said she still felt numb, trying to absorb the shock of what happened, thinking of how healthy her mother was before being infected. “You’re walking, you’re talking one day,” she said, “and then, boom, that person is gone.”
Throughout the South, communities were stunned when the Delta variant hit and it became clear that the pandemic was far from over.
Kenneth Rodgers, of Atmore, Ala., remembers the worry he carried with him for his wife, Frances Elaine Rodgers.
Ms. Rodgers, 52, had received her immunizations and wore protective equipment at her job as an aide in an assisted living facility. But her work was inherently risky, and she suffered from asthma, which weakened her ability to fight off the virus.
Since her death last September, Mr. Rodgers, a soft-spoken man with his own health problems, has struggled. He can hardly stand to hear mention of the pandemic. “It’s every time you turn the TV or radio or anything — Covid, Covid, Covid,” he said. “It’s hard for me.”
Sometimes Mr. Rodgers replays the events of that summer in his head, thinking of how many people around them were sick. He always arrives at the same conclusion.
“I don’t know what we could have done differently,” he said.
Since losing his mother, Bobby C. Noland, to Covid in the Omicron wave this year, Tom Noland has found himself with a painful question familiar to so many Americans whose loved ones are among the one million dead. If not for the pandemic, how much time would they have had left?
“You always think at some point your parents will pass,” said Mr. Noland, a college professor whose mother-in-law was Ms. Stockard. “But I definitely think if Covid wouldn’t have come along, she would have had at least six, seven more years.”
Other questions have intruded into the lives of people whose relatives died of the disease, questions that are a reminder that dying of Covid is seen as different, somehow separate from other losses.
“When somebody says, I lost my husband to cancer, or I lost my son in a car accident, it’s immediate sympathy,” said Sam Beeson, whose wife, Jennifer, died of Covid at the age of 60. “But when you say I lost my wife to Covid, the first thing people say is, ‘Did she have pre-existing conditions?’”
They were high school sweethearts, married for 36 years, and the parents of a 30-year-old son, Alex. Mr. Beeson kept all the sympathy cards he had received, taped up to a door, until a few months ago. He has not touched his wife’s closet since she died.
Mr. Beeson is still tortured by people around him who downplay Covid, or say it wasn’t real, or share misinformation on Facebook. Even people who knew Jennifer, he said, share memes mocking vaccines.
“Stuff like, ‘I’m not getting vaccinated because I have an immune system.’ Jennifer had an immune system, and a million people in this country had an immune system, too,” he said. “I end up having to defend the disease that killed my wife.”
After losing her grandfather Andrew to Covid, Rachel Pitonyak has been stung by the lack of regard for the pandemic’s dangers. When she asked students to wear masks in class at the college in Buffalo where she teaches, she was sometimes met with resistance or rolled eyes.
She says that the careless comments she encounters repeatedly, whether in person or on social media, suggest a disregard for the lives of people like her grandfather.
“It’s the ‘It’s sad that older people are dying, but you know, whatever,’” she said. “What a lot of those people seem to be saying is that someone going through that kind of suffering or pain is not as bad because they’re older.”
Ms. Waltrich, whose 23-year-old sister, Emily, died of Covid last summer, has tried to shut out chatter on social media about vaccines, politics and debates over personal freedom.
Emily worked in a day care in a Chicago suburb, her sights set on a career as an early-childhood educator. Ms. Waltrich thinks of how much her sister suffered, how she wept from her hospital room and asked why this had happened to her. She takes some comfort in memories of Emily as a little girl, when her parents called her Sunshine, a nod to her blonde hair and her bright personality.
“I feel like only recently have I finally accepted that she died,” Ms. Waltrich said. Sometimes it seems that she is shouting into a void, trying to get the world to understand how much has been lost.
“My sister mattered,” she said.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.