It’s been about 6 months since that patio internet date on June 18 where I checked Twitter, saw what The City (NYC) was doing to memorialize all the people in NYC who died of COVID-19, thought “I can do that”, and was entering in my credit card info to buy the domain by the time my date got back from getting our delayed grab’n’sit meal. By the next day, the day that the St. Louis Metro passed 1000 deaths from COVID-19, I had created this site on “bulk hosting” that I had prepaid for in March for other projects and posted my first post. On June 24 I wrote and published the first memorial, appropriately about nurse Judy Wilson-Griffin – the first known COVID-19 fatality in the St. Louis Metro.
I’ve learned so much in the past six months. I’ve been inspired. I’ve gotten in the news (local and national news via the Associated Press) and on St. Louis On the Air. I’ve connected with inspiring people. I’ve written, except for a few family/friend submitted posts, 167 memorials to people in the St. Louis Metro who died of COVID-19. Almost 3000 people in the St. Louis Metro have died of COVID-19 as of this writing (2923 as of December 17).
I started out including people from St. Louis but who no longer live here who died of COVID-19, but after a few weeks decided that this site should focus on the actual local faces “behind the numbers” of the horrifying death statistics that we see on the news every night. I decided not to make a state or larger regional or national memorial because I believe that big changes start local.
At first I was trying to “get caught up” with the obituaries and news stories about victims from April to June. Now, for my self care and sanity, I write and publish only one memorial a night. My process and routine are simple: on Sundays I go through the obituaries (currently monitoring Legacy’s Missouri obits that mention COVID or corona, the Belleville News Democrat on Legacy, The Riverbender, and St. Louis Cremation), news and notes to myself that people send me or that I find and email to myself as notes, and I save those as “drafts”. After my walk, after work (I’m still going into an office as of this writing), after dinner, after boyfriend if he comes over, I put earplugs in and sit down to write. I do a basic facebook and google search to see if there’s anything interesting about the person I’m writing about, and words come out of my fingers.
Black people are still dying at roughly twice the rate of whites, which still is not fully reflected on this site despite my best efforts at reaching out to those communities (Black Corona Lives Matter is a great local Facebook group). This pandemic has brought out our racial and socioeconomic health disparities, and I hope that while there’s light on these issues there will be more efforts to resolve them rather than sweeping them further into the darkness.
I’ve heard from victims’ families, which makes me cry almost every single time. I haven’t become numb to these human beings who are no longer with us, but I do a pretty good job at compartmentalizing and structuring my time doing this so that I pour my emotions into composition, then shut the browser tabs and more or less go on with my life (I am so fortunate!). Communicating outside of that zone reminds me that to so many others, it’s the waves of grief and sorrow that will last for much longer than an hour one night. My heart truly goes out to the surviving husbands, wives, daughters, sons, parents, best friends and families. I think a lot about the bereavement multipliers (”For every COVID-19 death, approximately nine surviving Americans will lose a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child.”).
My biggest challenge has been the amount of time this takes. Unlike an exercise routine, writing memorials for those dead of COVID-19 is not becoming any easier the more consistently or longer I do it. Despite my best routine, it still takes at least an hour a night. I push through it knowing that others in this pandemic are suffering far more and far longer, so if this is the most discomfort and inconvenience that I experience then I am incredibly fortunate.
I keep getting asked “why”, and I also keep getting asked “what’s next”.
I’m awful at answering those questions because I truthfully don’t know it myself. I was not thinking ahead six months ago. I had a gut feeling that this pandemic wouldn’t stop killing before summer of 2021, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of this. I had a vague idea that maybe some bigger organization would take an interest in taking this effort over, but then I realized that everyone is too short-staffed, needing volunteers, processing change, and trying to at least tread water. We’re too much in the midst of living this history to really process it, so by creating St. Louis Covid Memorial I am volunteering into the future for an organization and cause I don’t yet know.
To realize that I am providing a service to victim’s families, that this site validates their suffering and grief, has been unexpected. I don’t have the words when people tell me this, it just makes me want to blush and cry at the same time. Any compliments are more than I deserve for such imperfect memorialization of tragedies. My heart truly goes out to those experiencing death in this pandemic.
I’ve communicated with an online friend about making a COVID-19 Memorial Day, which I still think is a great idea (and I even made a great site CovidDay.org)… That is a slow project which I hope that others with more time and resources will take the lead on. I strongly think that February 28, the day of the first publicly known death from COVID-19 in the USA, is a perfect date for a national day of COVID-19 victim remembrance (it doesn’t fall on any other holidays, either). I’m happy to help as I can!
Yet, sometimes nothing is next, because it’s enough to just go about the mundane day to day while time slowly marches towards that light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes, the honest and simple “why” is because memorializing deaths from COVID-19 in the St. Louis Metro area is the most helpful thing I think that I can do with my time and resources.
“Life has a way of talking to the future, it’s called memory”,Richard Powers, The Overstory
Observations, conjectures, and questions:
- People often don’t put the cause of death in their death notices and that obituaries with cause of death noted seem to be the domain of the white and middle-upper classes.
- There are lots of elderly people who died in nursing homes according to their obituaries, and I wonder if the families don’t want to provoke the ire (or legal arm) of management and staff at those places by posting that their loved ones died of COVID-19. If the experience was okay and nobody can be faulted… why make it look like you’re blaming an extended care facility?
- I wonder if survivors feel guilt that they survived and wonder if or know that their deceased loved one caught COVID-19 from them. I wonder if this is also a reason to not post more publicly about their loved one’s death from coronavirus.
- There are no prisoners on this site as of this writing, I have found no obituaries.
- Black people are not proportionately represented (as previously stated)
- There are no Hispanics or Asians represented on this site, at all. I know from statistics that they are dying of COVID-19 too.
Creating St. Louis Covid Memorial profoundly impacted me, personally and beyond what I could have articulated at the beginning.
In the background of creating and building this site, I have been dealing with home remodel angst (I bought a fixer-upper at the end of 2018), being the “new girl” at a job that I started in April (my last interview was memorably the day before everything shut down in mid-March), and unexpectedly starting a new relationship (not with the guy I went out with on June 19). Oh, and my three cockatoos. They are charming, intelligent, and they think it’s a game to distract me when I’m focused and serious. I wear earplugs when writing and they still intrude by screaming (at a measured 120 decibels), nipping at me, and chewing up interior trim and on the house in general (my neighbors can probably hear me regularly yelling “STOP EATING MY HOUSE!” and “OUCH DON’T BITE”).
Dealing with other peoples’ callousness towards the human toll of this pandemic has become an absolute trigger point for me. I don’t understand why some people don’t wear masks. I don’t understand how people fortunate enough to get very mild cases of COVID-19 can still continue to deny the deadliness of this virus and why they aren’t praising their creator or knocking on wood that they were spared. Seeing such indifference and carelessness towards strangers and society as a whole has shaken the rose colored glasses that I’ve somehow kept on through and despite deep personal tragedies. I have come to the conclusion that most people are well-meaning but lazy and most of them not too smart.
I’ve become more of a romantic. I write about people married 26, 38, 57 years… and I want what they had, with all the ups and downs, even to the point of becoming widowed (statistically likely). If I was the least bit commitment-phobic (which I was more than a little), I think I’m over that now. Writing these memorials and communicating with bereaved surviving spouses has taught me the power and importance of love.
Processing all this death, by learning about the lives of those I’ll never get to meet, has made me reflect upon my own life. What would happen to my belongings and birds if I caught COVID-19 and had the worst outcome possible (death)? Who would write my obituary and what would it say? I’m taking every precaution not to catch this virus, and not to die in general, but as I’m too often reminded, all that could change in an instant (and those who take precautions sometimes still catch it since few things are 100% safe).
I’m not sure how to end this post, and I could agonize over publishing and making small edits. Ultimately, I believe, and I hope that this site communicates: