My Brother’s Death Didn’t Have to Happen

Elizabeth Warren spoke with Edward-Isaac Dovere about losing her brother Donald Reed Herring to COVID-19.

Youtube / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s oldest brother, Donald Reed Herring, died of COVID-19 in late April, and I heard that she sometimes mentioned this in conversations about policy, though she was reluctant to talk about it publicly. So when I interviewed her for a story about her pandemic-response work (and her prospects of getting picked to be Joe Biden’s running mate), it was only natural to ask how the pandemic had affected her personally.

For anyone who heard a Warren stump speech during the year she was running for president, her brothers were familiar characters, the Oklahoma family. The three of them were “the boys.” She was a late-in-life baby—“My mother always used to call me the surprise!” she’d say. All three of her brothers served in the military. She clearly revered them.

Don was the oldest—86 when he died, about 15 years older than Warren. When I pushed her to speak about what had happened, she was audibly emotional. And the story she told—of the coronavirus sneaking up on a loved one, of feeling helpless since she couldn’t be with him, and of having to grieve from afar—is, with more than 90,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States so far, becoming a sadly familiar American one.

“I just kept imagining what’s happening to him. Is he afraid? Is he cold? I kept thinking about whether he was cold,” she said, in a moment that captured so much of her sadness and frustration about what had happened. She agreed to let me share what she told me.

— Edward-Isaac Dovere

It just feels like something that didn’t have to happen. He had had pneumonia and had been hospitalized. This is back in February. He wanted to go home after he’d been hospitalized and his doctor said, “No, I want you to just go to a rehab and just get some of your strength back.” Pneumonia really takes it out of you. And, you know, he’s old. And so he went to the rehab and was ready to go home. He was packed up and ready to go home when somebody tested positive, and they wouldn’t let him leave. And I called him every day for 11 days, and every day he would say, “I’m just fine.” In fact, he said, “I think I probably had it before and I’m just too tough and didn’t even notice.”

And then he got sick, and then he died, by himself. That’s the hard part—really hard part. It’s hard to process things like this because everything is happening at a distance. And human beings—we’re not set up for that. We’re wired to be with each other. It makes it hard.

I lost three very important people in my life many years ago in what felt like a short period of time: my mom, my daddy, and my Aunt Bee. Each of them died differently. My mother, very suddenly and unexpectedly. My daddy, lingering cancer. I held his hand as he died. With my mother, I had been there on the day that she died, in the night. My Aunt Bee got sick and then couldn’t recover. But I was with them. And I was with my brothers and my cousins and my kids. And we shared memories; we grieved together.

It was frustrating the whole time. He had pneumonia, and I was calling every day. And I couldn’t be there, but it was clear he was recovering. Then, when the doctor said, “I want you to set up rehab; you’ll get your strength back,” I thought, That’s great. We’d talk every day and tell funny stories and laugh. And he’d keep me up to date.

And then when he said that the coronavirus test had come back positive, it’s like that note you hear far off—a warning. And I remember thinking I couldn’t breathe. And he said, “Bets”—he’d call me Bets or Betsy always—“I feel fine. I feel fine.” And for 11 days, I’d call him in the morning, call him in the evening, and he’d tell me, “Oh, it’s fine,” and laugh. And he was irritated that he couldn’t leave. And I had begun to think, This is okay. We’re going to get him out of there. In fact, I’d been talking: Would David—my other brother—be the one to pick him up, or was John going to come? You know what I mean: working on the logistics of how to get him out of there.

And then I called, and no one answered his phone, his cell. And that had happened a couple of times because he’d been doing something else. But nobody answered. And so a little while later I called back, and then I got the news that he had been taken to an emergency room. In any other state of the world, I would have been there with him. We all would have been there with him. And instead he was by himself. I just kept imagining what’s happening to him. Is he afraid? Is he cold? I kept thinking about whether he was cold. There’s no one there to talk to him while he waits for the doctor. There’s no one there to be with him while he receives the news.

Then I found out they put him in intensive care. I would get the information via the nurses about what his blood-oxygen levels were. And all I could do would be talk by phone with my brothers. It’s not the same. You need to touch people. We have to hug; we have to be with each other.

Then he rallied and I talked to him on the phone. He was a little slurred, clearly had had a tough time. He wasn’t getting out of bed and walking around, but he was doing better. And then he took another dip and it went all the way down. More than 60,000 families across this country are going through the same thing right now. It’s something none of us were prepared for. It’s always hard to lose someone you love. But to lose someone when you have to wonder: What were their last days like? Were they afraid? Were they cold? Were they lonely? That is a kind of grief that is new to all of us. And my brothers won’t get over this. They just won’t. None of us will.