Maeve Higgins: Individual death is never an isolated event

Maeve Higgins: Individual death is never an isolated event

Dr Joseph Varon hugs and comforts a patient in the Covid-19 intensive care unit (ICU) during Thanksgiving at the United Memorial Medical Center on November 26, 2020 in Houston, Texas. Picture: Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Over one million people have died from coronavirus in the US. This week, the CDC, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reported that the death toll had just surpassed one million people since March of 2020. 

Such a number is difficult to comprehend. The scale and speed of death are what researchers call a mortality shock. There are various gruesome ways to try to understand the scale of death. It's roughly equivalent to the entire population of San Francisco dying within two years or two Boeing 747s crashing every week for two years and killing everyone on board.

This week, in a statement marking the one million lives lost, President Joe Biden said: "As a nation, we must not grow numb to such sorrow. To heal, we must remember." 

Online memorial

With that in mind, I read a short obituary of Carlos "Candallo" Acevedo, who was born in Las Marias, Puerto Rico, and moved to The Bronx in his youth to attend high school. He worked at the New York Botanical Gardens as a teenager and then joined the US army. 

Mr Acevedo later worked as a commercial truck driver. He was a compassionate and wonderful father to his three children, said his wife, Yolanda Acevedo. He played the congas around the house with a backwards Yankees cap and influenced his children's love for salsa music. Mr Acevedo died on April 15, 2020, at home, of coronavirus. 

I learned about his life and death from 'Missing Them', an online memorial created by THE CITY, Columbia Journalism School, Brown Institute for Media Innovation, and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. The memorial has a simple but profound mission. 

"The coronavirus has killed more than 40,000 New Yorkers so far. But their loss is incalculable. This is a space to remember and honour every person who died — who they were and what they meant to this city."

An individual death is never an isolated event. The death of one person irrevocably changes the lives of their loved ones, just as it leaves a hole in their community. In this way, a person's death can ripple through society in tragic ways

 Dr Ashton Verdery is a demographer and sociologist at Pennsylvania State University. 

In April 2021, he and his colleagues created the Covid-19 bereavement multiplier, an indicator of the average number of people who would lose a close relative for each Covid-19 death. This was defined as a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child. Their analysis revealed that each death leaves approximately nine people bereaved, and this is a fragile state to be in: "Having a family member recently die is tied to an elevated risk of physical and mental health decline and broader adverse implications for individuals' social, economic, and relationship well-being."

Life after death

I spoke to Dr Verdery about the differences between those left behind after death from Covid-19 compared to other causes. The impact of the former is likely worse, he thinks, for two reasons. The first is the type of death: "Deaths where there's a heavy amount of medical intervention, and when you're separated from your loved ones, deaths that are sudden or you don't understand what the medical procedures are — these are the deaths that lead us to struggle more, in terms of our mental health after the event." 

There are also the social circumstances during which the death of a loved one occurs. "Losing a loved one when you're financially precarious, when there's other stuff on your mind and when there's an inability to come together to grieve." These conditions were embodied by the pandemic and make the implications for those bereaved that much worse.

Children have been hit hardest by deaths from Covid-19 and can have mental halth struggles.
Children have been hit hardest by deaths from Covid-19 and can have mental halth struggles.

Dr Verdery clarifies that certain groups are most at risk, singling out children who have lost a parent or a caregiver to the disease. Researchers at Covid Collaborative estimated that more than 167,000 children in The US already faced that tragic loss in December of last year. Dr Verdery points out that the social isolation, institutional strain, and economic struggles caused by the pandemic could hinder access to support for those children. Still, he has a couple of solid suggestions. 

First, children need to be connected to the available supports they are entitled to, like Social Security child survivor benefits. Only about half of eligible children are in those programs thus far. He also urges a national effort to get financial, educational, and mental health resources to children who have lost a parent to Covid-19. One model for that effort could be the initiatives created by the federal government for the 3000 children who lost a parent or a caregiver in the 9/11 attacks.

A usually busy 5th Avenue is seen nearly empty on March 23, 2020, in New York City. 
A usually busy 5th Avenue is seen nearly empty on March 23, 2020, in New York City. 

One million deaths, and counting, will reverberate through the whole of society. Yet living here as life starts to resemble the before times, there is little sign that the one million people are no longer here. I understand our rush to get moving while we can, the troubling part is our failure to process, as a group, this terrible loss. Perhaps that is why a project like 'Missing Them' is meaningful. Dr Verdery believes so. 

"There are a number of benefits to a national memorialisation process where we try to remember that there is a pandemic and also so our grandchildren will remember it. In terms of direct support policies, there are a few that would benefit people, and it would mean you're taking this opportunity to look at bereavement as a kind of national public health crisis overall."

Medical personnel transport the body of a Covid-19 victim from a refrigerated container at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Centre in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Medical personnel transport the body of a Covid-19 victim from a refrigerated container at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Centre in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

"Missing Them" is just one way to memorialise our lost people. It's an ongoing project with an open invitation to family and friends of those who have died to make contact and honour their loved ones. Thus far, the memorial has 2,631 of New Yorkers' 40,132 confirmed and probable coronavirus deaths, and the creators hope to add more profiles. 

The names and photographs you see here represent just a small portion of the New Yorkers who have died. Obituary pages are missing names and stories, especially among members of the city's black and Latino communities, which have been impacted at disproportionately high rates

Kaitlyn Patterson profiled Mr Acevedo for the 'Missing Them.' 

She wrote that his daughter, Jailin Acevedo, remembers when her car broke down in the middle of a highway. Her father got in a cab to meet her, then got her car running again with only a bobby pin and a hair tie. She wrote that Mr Acevedo loved animals, particularly his dog, Bacon. He was happiest when surrounded by his family, and he couldn't stop smiling when he met his grandson for the first time. I will leave the last word about this beloved New Yorker to his daughter Jailin. 

"He was a prickly bear, but he was our prickly bear. There was never a day we doubted we were loved; though we annoyed him tons, we always knew he loved us."

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