Coronavirus: With flags, crosses and photos, mourning 200,000 dead in the US

Plastic flags, each representing a Texan who has died from Covid-19, are displayed outside of artist Shane Reilly’s home in Austin, Texas.
Plastic flags, each representing a Texan who has died from Covid-19, are displayed outside of artist Shane Reilly’s home in Austin, Texas.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Twelve days after his wife died of the coronavirus, increasing the enormous toll in the United States by one, Mr Michael Davis, dazed and grieving, went back to work.

He hoped that his job, at an assembly plant in Louisville, Kentucky, would keep his hands busy, which might then occupy his mind, too. Maybe it would ease his longing for Dana, 51, a nurse with blond hair and a bright smile. They were just shy of their seventh wedding anniversary when the coronavirus took her life.

But at work, it felt like the pandemic was the only thing people could think about, the centre of conversation at his sprawling factory. And on the news, every story seemed to be about the coronavirus.

"Everything's corona, everything's corona - that's all you hear about all the time," Mr Davis said. "You don't want that reminder all the time of why she's gone."

The coronavirus crisis in the US has claimed nearly 200,000 lives, the young and the old, those living in dense cities and tiny towns, people who spent their days as nursing home attendants, teachers, farm labourers and retirees.

The loved ones left behind are trapped in an extraordinary state of torment. They have seen their spouses, parents and siblings fall ill from the virus. They have endured the deaths from a distance, through cellphone connections or shaky FaceTime feeds. Now they are left to grieve, in a country still firmly gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, where everywhere they turn is a reminder of their pain.

That aftermath has been uniquely complicated, and cruel. In dozens of conversations, people across the US who have lost family members to the coronavirus described a maelstrom of unsettled frustration, anger and isolation, all of it intensified by the feeling that the pandemic is impossible to shut out.

Many are bitter over the government's handling of the pandemic, which has brought bleak milestones since the first announcement of a coronavirus death in the US in late February.

By May 27, more than 100,000 people in the country had died from the virus. Less than four months later, nearly 100,000 more people are dead, losses captured in the flags, crosses and photographs at memorials that are popping up around the country.

Some survivors have felt a stigma attached to their loved ones' deaths, a faint suggestion by acquaintances that their relatives were somehow to blame for being infected. And they have been particularly distraught by the constant mentions of it in conversations and in the news, inescapable reminders that resurface their own losses like a pinprick.

"Unless you're one of the people who has lost somebody to this," said Ms Corinthia Ford of Detroit, whose father, a beloved pastor, died from the coronavirus in April, "you don't understand."


In Louisville, Mr Davis ultimately went on short-term leave, realising that he needed to step away from a job that demanded a focus he had temporarily lost. But staying home brought a different misery.

In the evenings, he began skipping the news in favour of Netflix, where he hoped he might avoid mentions of the coronavirus. Scrolling through Facebook, it was a constant topic. He read posts from people who were cavalier about its risks, dismissing it as a minor affliction that killed a small fraction of people who caught it.

One of those people, he thought, was his Dana.


For Ms Teresa DiMezza, a high school guidance counsellor in New Jersey, September brought a new academic year and a busy schedule. But there was no respite from the virus, or from the questions that have been left unanswered since her father, Samuel Fuoco, 71, died from the coronavirus in April.

She wonders how her father, a military veteran who was so strong, could have died so quickly. How was he infected in the first place?

"This is a mystery that will never be solved, and we have to learn to live with this," Ms DiMezza said. "We will never know - and that is sickening."

She and her family members have been plagued by guilt, reliving the scramble to manage his medical care, which had to happen entirely over the phone because of hospital restrictions.

"What if we were there?" she said. "What if we hadn't had him intubated? Is he disappointed with us? Did he realise we weren't there? Could he hear our voices on the phone?"


Mr Shane Peoples, 41, has had plenty of grief since his parents were taken by the coronavirus this month. It has frequently been interrupted by outrage.

He tells their story like the storybook romance it was: Darlene and Johnny Peoples, native North Carolinians, were happily married for nearly half a century, and were exceptionally close and devoted to their children. But that lifetime together ended abruptly when the couple, both of them stricken by the coronavirus, died four minutes apart while holding hands in a hospital room in Salisbury, North Carolina.

They went to the hospital on the same day. They entered the intensive care unit on the same day. And they died on the same day.


"They held each other's hands for 50 years," Mr Peoples said. "They held them as they left this earth and they are still holding them in heaven."

He and others who lost relatives to the virus said they could not stop thinking about what they considered the mishandling of the pandemic by President Donald Trump and politicians of both parties closer to home.

"Personally, losing my parents brought out a lot of anger for me," said Mr Peoples, who lives in China Grove, North Carolina, near Charlotte. "They were stolen from us by a virus that should have been contained months ago."

Mr Peoples, a Democrat whose parents were longtime Republicans, expressed fury at Mr Trump, who downplayed the virus in the spring and continues to hold large indoor rallies and largely shrug off masks and social distancing.

Ms Fiana Garza Tulip, 40, who lives in New York's Brooklyn, has found it difficult to grieve her mother with her anger so fierce.

She blames state and national political leaders for the death of her mother, Isabelle Odette Papadimitriou, who was 64 when she died of the virus in Dallas in July. And she is furious at people who do not wear masks, who spread misinformation and who are in denial about how lethal the virus can be.

"I can't cry and I wish I could," she said. "I want to feel all the things you should when a loved one dies so tragically because it helps you get through it. But the anger gets in the way."

Conversations about mask-wearing can cut deep to those who have lost relatives to the virus. Mr Gary Werito Jr, of Tuba City, Arizona, gets angry when he hears the issue framed as a choice that could infringe on personal freedom. What about the freedoms of his mother and aunt, who died from the virus in April?


Through it all, the mourners are still living through a pandemic.

In her Charleston, South Carolina, home, Ms Petrice Brown was walking from one room to another this month when a black-and-white Time magazine cover flashed on the television screen. Nearly 200,000 people had died of the coronavirus in the United States, the headline told her.

"I stopped in my tracks," she said. "And I was like, 'Wow. My husband is in there.' " After that, she stopped watching the news.

It is a common refrain from families who have lost loved ones to the virus: There is no way to turn the world off.

The pandemic dominates social media, newspapers, radio and television. Stopping at the grocery store requires standing on floor markings in the checkout line. Even the simple act of slipping on a mask can be a reminder of a relative who died from the virus.

Ms Ivette Marquez, of Brooklyn, said the numbers - the deaths, the cases - that continue to flash across television screens and on the Internet are seared into her mind. She knows that about 800 others in New York City died of the coronavirus on the same day as her father.

Another woman whose father died from the virus said that hearing the word Covid is like getting punched. One widow said she listened to people talk about a vaccine and could only think of one thing: Whenever it comes will be too late for her husband.

"Yesterday was the first time I watched the news in five months," said Ms Denise Chandler of Detroit, who lost both her father and husband to the coronavirus in a matter of weeks this summer. "Everywhere you turn, it's Covid this, Covid that. I'm just tired of hearing about Covid."


Perhaps the most difficult part to process, many survivors said, has been losing a family member to a ubiquitous pandemic but being robbed of the ability to publicly mourn.

Families were not allowed to hold their loved ones' hands when they died in hospitals. They cannot receive hugs of comfort from friends. They have been forced to curtail gatherings with groups in living rooms, in the pews of churches or at crowded pubs and restaurants in the rituals that guide families through loss.

Even the tradition of a funeral procession - dozens of cars in a line, halting traffic around them, making their mourning visible to the community - has been painfully disrupted, as funerals have been limited to a small handful of family members at most.

The pandemic has proved an old saying familiar in the funeral trade: Grief shared is grief diminished.

Ms Chandler, a mother of eight in Detroit, has had little time for grieving as she raises her children and keeps most visitors away, too worried about exposing her family to the virus.

She took one day last month to let herself be immersed in sadness. She went to a public memorial in Detroit - a long, driving tour of photographs of the city's dead, arranged in alphabetical order - with her children.

"Immediately upon entering, you see the first person that starts in 'A,' and you see how long the line is," Ms Chandler said. "Tears immediately started coming down my face. It took my breath away just to see all of the families that were affected by this virus."