We’ve passed 300,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States. It is hard to know what to say about this scale of death, given that we’ve passed hundred-thousand body-count milestones twice before. And we may reach another before the pandemic ends.
In the absence of something to say, we’ve collected some of the writing on death due to COVID-19 that Slate has published throughout the pandemic. A round number isn’t much different from what we’ve been experiencing for months now, after all. Humans tend to experience death individually, so even though it’s happening on a mass scale right now, we wanted to revisit the perspectives of people who have lost loved ones due to this disease, people who comforted those who were grieving, and the professionals who cared for people as they died. Their stories don’t add up to 300,000 deaths, but we hope they might help you get a little closer to feeling the scale of the tragedy we’re going through anyway.
“Every morning I turn on my cell phone and see dozens of messages from friends telling me that they have lost their mom, uncle, grandfather,” a woman in Italy said in March. “I get angry because I think: if politicians had moved faster, if they had closed everything before, now my father would be alive. If people had stopped taking walks, if factories had closed, maybe I wouldn’t have experienced all of this. Did my father die to save a country’s economy?”
“I have all but given up on knowing what to say in response to this flattening of suffering and pain,” wrote Dahlia Lithwick in May of the strange whiplash between social media posts mourning loved ones, and those featuring mundane household activities. “I type ‘I’m sorry,’ and ‘I’m so sorry.’ The rest of the feed is given over to baking. People are doing some spectacular things with cannellini beans. This past week was the sourdough week for my people, it seems. I am almost as useless in my responses to the food posts, to those I type ‘yum.’ Sometimes I can’t recall what I am doing and post my ‘I’m sorry’’s and my ‘yum’’s in inappropriate spaces.”
“You don’t have a final goodbye, which for a lot of people helps with closure,” a chaplain working in New Jersey told us of those who have loved ones die during the pandemic. “It’s going to take a lot to accept that, that that’s the way it is.”
“It Overtook Us, This Time of Deaths”: An Interview With the Editor of the New York Times’ Obituary Section
“It was becoming startling and shocking how many people there were, and with great stories,” said William McDonald on the origin of the paper’s ongoing special section of obituaries for people who died of COVID-19. “Great lives were being lost. And we wanted to account for some of them. We wanted to make the point, I suppose, implicitly, that this disease was hitting people from all walks of life.”
“Flags will be lowered to commemorate the dead, now that (at least) 100,000 people have died of the coronavirus. There has not been much more in terms of national mourning, even though the coronavirus has killed more Americans than were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War (combined, actually),” wrote Susan Matthews on May 27td. “There is still no real end in sight.”
“This is something you’re not prepared for,” Corneill Stephens, professor of law at Georgia State University told Molly Olmstead in September of losing his wife earlier in the pandemic. “It’s hard to process the sudden death of somebody you’re really close to—the person you’re closest to in life—who’s healthy one minute, and you take them to the hospital and they’re gone.”
It’s “the number of deaths from car accidents in the United States over 2,000 days,” or “six hundred years’ worth of drownings in United States boating accidents,” or “American military fatalities if the war in Afghanistan were to last for 1,700 years,” or the number of COVID-19 deaths in America as of September 22nd, writes Julia Craven.
“Like in March, the hardest side of all of this is seeing our grandparents, our patients, die alone,” a doctor at a hospital in Milan said in December. “Phone calls to relatives are the hardest part emotionally. I don’t know how many times in the history of humanity thousands of people around the world have been denied the last farewell, the last hug, the last shake of hands with the one you love. It is devastating to say on the phone, “It is very likely that you will never see your mother or your husband again.” I will carry all those phone calls inside me forever; some I dream of even at night.”