Nearly every day for the past nine months, I’ve spent the last few hours before I go to sleep or the first few hours after I wake up in the morning reading news stories about and personal remembrances of those we’ve lost to the coronavirus pandemic. I then share the stories on the FacesOfCOVID Twitter feed, which I run. I make sure to read everything from start to finish, striving for accuracy as I write the corresponding posts, and, most important, I try to bear witness to the loss of this person from the Earth. I try to find something unique to lift up in each post, with the hope that people will recognize the loved one they are mourning just from reading a few words in a tweet.
More than 300,000 people are dead from COVID-19 in the United States. I find their faces scattered across the Obituaries sections of local newspapers, in profiles from local news, and in the wrenching testimonials submitted directly to me. Throughout my more than 250 days chronicling the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., one story at a time—now more than 4,000 and growing by the day—I’ve had the honor of remembering them through the beauty and goodness of the lives they lived.
I believe that Americans have a responsibility to share the stories of those who have died so our leaders don’t have the luxury of looking the other way. We have a responsibility to learn from their stories to better protect one another from this terrible disease. And we have a responsibility to affirm the basic dignity of our dead, proclaiming that their lives had meaning, and that those who loved them are not alone in their grief.
This ritual has changed me. I remember little pieces of every single story.
I remember Julena, a licensed cosmetologist, drywaller, and bricklayer who loved to garden. She was the matriarch of her family. Raymond, the ironworker who loved organic gardening and beekeeping—a hell of a guy to have a beer with, I bet. William loved to tell stories about peeling potatoes in the Navy mess hall to anyone in Ohio who would listen. Tom would drive his motorcycle around Virginia’s mountain roads with his little rescue pup in the sidecar, and Lydia lived for summer nights on her porch in Michigan listening to her favorite Mexican bands. I remember Connie, who made an epic peach cobbler and could often be found in her living my best life T-shirt, and Joe, the local barber who went to every single garage sale in town.
I remember the photos that their families shared with me.
Bessie’s radiant smile made me miss my grandmother, and I loved Lauryne’s face as she raised a glass; her family said she had “sass for miles.” Nicola’s photo featured his beautiful and overflowing family, who miss him terribly, and Phil’s showed him dancing with his daughter at her wedding. There was the flower behind Kim’s ear, and I can’t help but smile when I remember Jose in the swimming pool with the grandson he adored (his son Cesar says, “He was my two-year-old son’s favorite person”). I will never, ever be able to forget the photo of Sally’s final moments with her son before she passed away.
I remember the young people who died of COVID-19, despite virulent misinformation from President Donald Trump, who conveyed, with a shrug, that the virus “affects virtually nobody.”
I remember Andre in Indianapolis, who was 16 and loved basketball, bowling, and photography, and Yasmin in Connecticut, an 18-year-old aspiring artist and actor. Dar’yana died just shy of her 16th birthday, and Skylar was only 5 years old when she died of COVID-19 in Detroit. I remember Stephanie, who was 29 and died five days after what was supposed to be her wedding day; Kiara, 26, was a newlywed. I remember Anna, who was just 13 and loved to dance and play with her siblings. Her mom sent her story to me.
I remember those who undertook selfless acts of service, each of whom has inspired me to do better and more.
I remember David, a guy I wish I’d met—a World War II veteran who took part in the liberation of the Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany and died of COVID-19 within hours of his beloved wife, Muriel. Lois invited the unhoused to her huge Thanksgiving dinners in Pennsylvania every year for four decades, and Tony received a Bronze Star from his time in Vietnam and became a pillar of the Latino community in Phoenix, Arizona, after the war. Ronnie was a bus driver and carpenter in Chicago who trained countless others in the trade, and Edward showed up to volunteer immediately after Hurricane Harvey, wading through waist-deep water to help his neighbors. I remember Melanie, who was an educator at a community college in New Orleans and quietly bought supplies, textbooks, and bus passes for the students who couldn’t afford them, and Ray, who was a gifted woodworker in Minnesota who would make toys and donate them to kids at the local children’s hospital.
I remember our frontline workers who sacrificed their own health and safety so that others could survive this virus.
I remember Maisha, who was a respiratory therapist in Dallas known reverently by her many unhoused patients as “The Breathing Lady,” and Kevin, a paramedic in Philly who loved every single second of his job helping people (and had a hell of a smile, too). Harvey was a pediatrician in New Jersey beloved by parents because they knew how much he loved their kids, and Saif ran a pharmacy in Jersey City that was known as a place where new immigrants could go for help and advice, even if they didn’t speak English (he spoke four languages). I remember Marilyn, a school nurse who caught the virus at work, and Bryant, a firefighter whose grief-stricken chief texted me photos from when they picked up his body from the hospital, draped in an American flag.
I remember the many stories that hit close to home.
I remember Stanley, an 80-year-old Jewish lawyer with a passion for civil rights, which is almost exactly how I’d describe my own dad, who is battling Stage 4 cancer. Stanley’s daughter is a paramedic, and we talk to each other about our fathers now. Larry was a larger-than-life figure in the same Boston public-relations scene where I started my own company four years ago, and Rita was my friend Katie’s beloved grandma. Linda’s daughter Lynnetta taught me how to hold on to my parents’ legacy, and Steven’s wife, Karen, taught me about resilience and grace after she woke up from a month-long coma to find out that her husband was gone.
I remember the way they said goodbye.
I remember Thaddeus, who had a chance to say goodbye to his wife of 63 years in person because she was sick in the same hospital room, while Catherine’s family said goodbye over FaceTime. Bill took his last breath while his family played “Wish You Were Here,” by Pink Floyd, for him. I remember that Sam said goodbye to his wife of 30 years covered head to toe in personal protective equipment, while Zulfikar’s family said goodbye through a laptop, a nurse holding his hand. I remember Mary, whose daughter found her mother unresponsive and attempted CPR.
I remember the injustice of how we lost them.
I remember Felicia, who was a Holocaust survivor who lost her entire family to the Nazis only to be taken by this horrible virus, and Edna, an elder of the Cherokee Nation who spoke fluent Cherokee and was passionate about keeping her language and heritage alive. Nina was a nurse whose workplace became the site of a coronavirus outbreak, and Saul worked at a meat-processing plant where employees did not have sufficient PPE. German, a hotel worker, lost his health insurance when he was laid off and then he became ill, and Lupe was one of three people who died in connection with a cluster at the Walmart where he worked. I remember Deborah, who put off going to the hospital for treatment because she was worried about the cost, and Margie, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher who was afraid to go back to work but felt she didn’t have a choice because of financial pressure following her husband’s own recent, unrelated sickness.
I remember all of the faces of those lost—the thousands of other stories I’ve read and cried over throughout this pandemic. Each one of these people meant the world to someone. Every one of their lives had meaning. And now every one of their deaths calls out to us for accountability. The history of this pandemic is being written right now, and we have a responsibility to ensure that they are part of it.
In the quiet of the early morning, or at the end of a long day, glancing through the photos and putting them in the cue for the next set of posts, I come back to the questions these deaths ask of us: What do we do with our memories? How do we make sense of our loss?
For me, the answer is to work to make America a place where we have a responsibility to care about the neighbors we’ve never met, a place where what matters isn’t who is the last one standing, but whom we stand beside.
If I ever needed a reminder of where I stand, I have found it in the stories of those we’ve lost.