Updated at 10:06 a.m. ET on December 17, 2021.
Last week, at a small funeral home in Northwest Washington, D.C., I attended the funeral of a teacher I knew from my time working in Prince George’s County schools eight years ago, Yvonne Brown.
Ms. Brown loved literature. She wrote and self-published a novel. She started her school’s poetry club. She loved the magic of words. She loved her students. During the service, one young man discussed how while he never technically had her as a teacher, he and many of his friends would spend time before school, during lunch, and after school in her classroom. Everyone was drawn to her. Her classroom was a space where young people could be themselves, and where they could discover themselves.
The main room in the funeral home was filled with people sitting in spaced-apart chairs, their brown wood covered by red-and-white cushions too thin to provide real comfort. Those of us who could not find a chair stood against the walls, our bodies strung like grieving ornaments in a place where no one hopes to spend the holidays.
This was the first funeral I’ve attended since the beginning of the pandemic, and in some ways, I had forgotten what it does to your body—to be in a room remembering someone who was once there but, suddenly, is no longer. I forgot what it was like to see a corpse: the closed eyes, the crossed arms, the stillness of it all. I forgot what it was like to see so many people you haven’t seen in years—to greet them, to hug them, to whisper how good it is to see them and how sad it is that it had to be under these circumstances. I saw many of my former students, all of whom are now adults and some of whom have children and families of their own.
At the front of the room, a silver casket adorned in pink and white roses gleamed under the chandeliers. On either side of the casket were photos of Ms. Brown. Her face was radiant, her smile luminous. Beneath each photo were the dates of her birth and death—numbers that were too close together in time, a reminder of why we were all gathered here.
In the front row sat her two daughters, their father’s arms wrapped around their shoulders. One looked down at the ground and the other buried her head in her father’s chest. At 11 o’clock, the ushers walked to the front of the room and gently closed the casket for the last time. Ms. Brown’s daughters are 10 and 11 years old. Their mother was 44. She died from complications related to COVID-19.
This week, the United States is passing a harrowing marker: 800,000 people killed by COVID—and that official number, as enormous as it is, is likely an undercount. One in every 100 Americans 65 and older has been killed by the virus. For nearly two years, we have all been surrounded by a marathon of death.
Eight hundred thousand. It is a staggering number, with devastating reverberations for millions of people across this country. For perspective, each year in America some 38,000 people die in car crashes. Each year somewhere between 12,000 and 52,000 people die from flu. Each year 87,000 die from diabetes; 150,000 by stroke.
More Americans have now been killed by COVID-19 than the number of people who died in the Civil War (750,000)—the deadliest war in American history and one in which more Americans died than during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Korean War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the Afghan War combined.
The number is so enormous that we risk becoming numb to its implications. I have experienced this myself. Over the course of the past 21 months I have felt my relationship to the pandemic and my ability to absorb its human consequences ebb and flow. I have two young children, and have told myself that to be fully and emotionally present for them, I cannot overwhelm myself with the sheer volume of death that this pandemic has brought upon us. At various points of the pandemic, I have been guilty of scrolling past anything related to the growing death toll.
Ms. Brown’s funeral forced me to confront the emotional distance I had created between myself and the suffering caused by this virus. As I looked around the room, I saw all of the people there who had come to remember her life, her spirit, her smile, and found myself unsettled by the moments when these numbers were only numbers to me. I left the funeral home telling myself that would no longer be the case.
The people who have died from COVID are people who were loved; they’ve left behind families, friends, and communities that were shaped by their presence and their time on this Earth. My exercise in more proactive remembering has been aided by the Twitter account @FacesofCOVID, which has created thousands of virtual obituaries for those taken by the virus.
“I think that the story at the beginning of the pandemic was largely a data story. We were getting … all these numbers thrown at us—hospitalizations and cases and deaths,” Alex Goldstein, the founder of FacesofCOVID, told NPR in June. “I found it really hard to process, and I felt like, we were missing the human element of that story.”
Goldstein is right, and scrolling through the account forces you to see the humans behind the numbers—the grandparents, the parents, the children, the neighbors, the family, the friends.
When I think of 800,000 people, I think of 800,000 funerals, and I remember how many of them did not look like the one I was able to attend. At the beginning of the pandemic before vaccines, before boosters, before we even fully understood how this virus spread, the very idea of what constituted a funeral was amorphous, virtual, and often insufficient. People were unable to gather to bury those they loved. Funerals were held over Zoom. People were forced to say goodbye via FaceTime even when they were standing right outside the door of the hospital. In January, Patricia Rice of Clinton, Maryland, died of COVID. In the post about her on FacesofCOVID, a loved one wrote, ‘Our family lost its beloved matriarch … She is survived by her 3 sons, 12 grandchildren, and 7 great grandchildren. She was the glue that held our family together, and we won’t even be able to have a funeral.”
When I think of 800,000 people, I think of the health-care workers who have watched death cascade around them. I think of how hard they work to save the lives of so many people diagnosed with the disease, and how hard it must be to watch them go. On August 7, 2020, Charles Henry Krebbs of Phoenix, Arizona, died of COVID at the age of 75. In a note his daughter Tara submitted to FacesofCOVID, she wrote, “I told him we loved him, that we knew that he had fought long and hard, and that it was okay for him go now. He wiggled his eyebrows at me. He knew I was there and that he was not alone. His ICU nurse stood by [his] side and cried with me as he passed away.”
When I think of 800,000 people, I think of how special each of these people was to someone. And as I watch Ms. Brown’s two young daughters sit near their mother’s casket, unable to look directly at it, I think of so many children like them, and what has been taken from them. Nearly 170,000 children in America have lost parents or primary caregivers to COVID. According to a report recently released by the organization COVID Collaborative, about 70 percent of these children are 13 or younger.
More than 1,000 people continue to die every day of COVID, and that number is rising even now. There is a new variant that is thought to be twice as contagious as the Delta variant, which itself was twice as contagious as those before it.
As humans, we adapt. It is central to our survival as a species. We adjust to things that once felt unbearable. We normalize what was once abnormal. This is, in many ways, understandable. We must keep living. We must attempt to keep providing for those who need us. We must protect our bodies and our spirits. Still, to the best of our ability, we must fight against apathy and push back against an inclination toward indifference. More than 800,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 in the United States; more than 5 million people have died worldwide. Behind these numbers are real individuals. People like Ms. Brown, who leave behind children and brothers and sisters and parents and friends. Who leave behind all of us.
This article originally misstated the ages of Yvonne Brown and her daughters.