How do we wrap our minds around the fact that nearly half a million people have died of COVID-19 in the United States alone?
The nation is on the cusp of that milestone: 500,000 lives lost, in just one year.
For the families of those who died of COVID-19, each successive milestone of this pandemic may seem irrelevant to their particular, punishing loss.
"Every day is a milestone for me," says Sabila Khan. "These round numbers don't really mean anything to me. Every day is just as shocking."
Her father Shafqat Khan was an organizer in the Pakistani immigrant community in New Jersey. When he died of COVID-19 at age 76 last April, near the beginning of the pandemic, the virus had claimed the lives of some 32,000 Americans.
Now, with COVID-19 deaths nearing half a million, Sabila fears the country has grown numb.
"We don't have that privilege of growing numb to the numbers," she says. "We're in it. I wish people would think about this every day."
And so, each morning, Khan has a ritual. Before she even gets out of bed, she reaches for her phone and checks the latest COVID-19 numbers on the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
"I feel like I have to somehow bear witness to the trauma that continues," she says. "By looking at the numbers every day, I'm sitting in the grief."
A few days after her father died, Khan created a support group on Facebook for family and friends of those lost to COVID-19.
What began with a few members has ballooned to more than 7,000.
A lesson in exponents
One of those support group members is Josh Hollifield. His father Alan Hollifield, a maintenance mechanic, was 60 when he died in North Carolina just after Thanksgiving. "[COVID] took him from healthy to dead in three weeks," Josh says.
When he thinks about the magnitude of the losses, he frames it this way: "It's almost the population of Wyoming that we've lost. We've almost lost a state's worth of people."
Hollifield has watched the COVID-19 numbers grow exponentially, with U.S. deaths nearly doubling since his father died.
"I remember when it was really starting to catch on that this was out of control," he says. "I posted on social media: 'America is about to get a hard lesson in exponents.' And by the time of my dad's death, I was like, apparently America didn't learn from its lesson in exponents."
In his job as a flight attendant, Hollifield has had to deal with passengers who refuse to wear a mask. It's disturbing, he says, that people can go about their lives and feel no connection to these hundreds of thousands of deaths.
"The larger the numbers are," he says, "the harder it is to feel the empathy anymore. And I don't know how we make that empathy personal again. ... Our brains are not good with big numbers."
‘It just won't stop growing’
The sheer weight of those numbers can tend to dwarf the individual stories behind each person who died. What does it mean when you're just one of half a million?
"I try not to think of my husband as a number. Because to me he's not a number," Carol McIntyre says.
Her husband of 36 years, James McIntyre, a retired county bus driver in Pensacola, Fla., died of COVID last July at age 70. "I mean, I'm sure he is in that count," she says. "But I just refuse to attach him to a number."
When McIntyre hears the latest tally of COVID-19 deaths, she can't help but wonder how many more people will die from this disease.
"It's like it just won't stop growing," she says. "And I know that there's somebody every minute, every second, every hour that's going through what I'm going through."
McIntyre doesn't go to stores unless she has to, and when she does, she sees a lot of people not wearing masks. "It hits me very hard," she says. "I try to share my story with them. I say, 'It's real.' I say, 'My husband passed from COVID.' ... A couple times, people kinda got a little iffy-iffy with me, so I backed off, you know? But it makes me so mad. I'm like, dag! They don't get it? Is it gonna take them to get COVID before they realize 'Hey, I should have worn my mask?'"
‘A brutal form of gaslighting’
Like Sabila Khan, Jennifer Spitzer of Ithaca, N.Y., checks the COVID-19 numbers daily, and is angered every time a new threshold is reached.
Her mother Abby Spitzer, a psychotherapist in the New York City suburbs, died last May at 78.
"It's devastating, this sort of accumulation of lives, and the way we keep waking up to another 100,000 people lost," Jennifer says. "One of the fears that a lot of us have is that as that number climbs, we all just become statistics. There's almost a callousness to the individuality of those losses."
What's worse, she says, is realizing how many people doubt that COVID-19 could have been the real cause of death. Or who, even after half a million lives lost, doubt that COVID-19 even exists; who think it's all a hoax, or a conspiracy.
Spitzer calls it "a brutal form of gaslighting," and she's pained by one alarming incident in particular.
"Shortly after my mother died," she recalls, "I remember walking down the street right by my house in a rather progressive upstate college town, and a man driving up to me and rolling down his window and coughing at me, in a kind of jeering cough, to mock me for wearing a mask."
Spitzer was too stunned to respond before the man drove away. "It was really a kind of horrific enactment of how many people don't take this virus seriously," she says. "I have been mocked or jeered for wearing a mask no fewer than four times. ... I actually think there's a lot more people walking around who still don't believe that this virus exists, even after 500,000 deaths, than we would like to believe."
‘It's just too much’
At the coffeehouse she owns in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, Ga., Cherie Johnson has set up a table in her mother's favorite window seat, with her mom's photo, a bottle of her favorite chai and some tulips.
Joan Beaubien was 78 when she died of COVID-19 on Nov. 18.
"When I think that in the three months since she's passed away that it's been double the amount of deaths, I'm blown away by that," Johnson says.
Beaubien was a mother of six, a former art teacher and store manager. She had a family history with deadly pandemics: her grandfather and great-grandmother were killed in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
The milestone of 500,000 COVID deaths is noteworthy, Johnson says, but she wonders, "If we're at a half a million now, when are we gonna be at a million? I have stopped following it as intently as I was, because it's just too much."
Johnson adds, "I try to say her name, Joan Beaubien, as much as I can. ... Just to put it out there that she existed."
‘That's my ma’
When Carmen Gardner-Jackson's mother, Diane Butler, went to the hospital with COVID last fall, her family kept their hopes up.
"You see on television that hey, the president of the United States took that drug and he got better, so my mom's gonna get that drug and she's gonna be better," Gardner-Jackson says. "But that wasn't the case for us."
Butler died in Milwaukee at age 66, a recent retiree. She had gone to college and proudly got an associate degree at 59. "Education is the one thing that no one can take away from you," she would preach to her children and grandchildren.
"How do you get other people to realize that she was someone special?" asks her daughter Carmen.
Sometimes, she will watch the rising death toll scroll by at the bottom of her television screen, "just always remembering that ma is one of those numbers," she says. "That's my ma. That's my mother. That's the woman that gave me my name. She's one of those numbers."
A fresh loss
Now that there are vaccines and the death rate is dropping, a new loss to COVID-19 can feel doubly cruel.
"We're so close to the finish line, it seems like," says Lori Baron, who lost her brother Danny Volce to COVID-19 earlier this month. He was 52. "To get so far into this and then to lose him here at this point ... I think it always feels unfair, but it feels especially hard," she says.
Volce was a drummer, father of three and a constant joker, Baron says: "like having Jim Carrey as a brother."
She feels compelled to look at the COVID-19 dashboards to frame her own loss in the context of all the others.
"I look at the number of deaths in the United States," she says, "and I just stare at that number, and I think, if Danny was still here, that number would look different. Just by one, but it would look different."
Baron focuses on the last digit of that rising number and thinks to herself, that's him.
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