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Lynn Schmidt is a columnist and editorial board member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In just a few short weeks, the United States is likely to reach an unfathomable milestone in terms of numbers: 1 million lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic.
The first death in the United States took place on Feb. 6, 2020. At current rates, we will have lost 1 million Americans in the 114 weeks, or 26 months, since the pandemic first hit our shores.
As of March, more than 200,000 U.S. children have lost a parent, grandparent or caregiver to the pandemic, according to the COVID Collaborative website. The virus is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S., after only heart disease and cancer. These numbers are dizzying and truly difficult to comprehend. This level of loss is almost unfathomable.
So how can we as Americans comprehend the devastating loss of 1 million of our fellow citizens? We can start by telling 1 million individual stories.
We have the immense work to do of remembering and mourning all those individuals. That work can begin with storytelling.
In 1988, I found myself walking along the National Mall in Washington. I gazed at some of the 8,288 assembled panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which were displayed on the Ellipse in front of the White House. To this day, I remember being moved to tears as I studied the quilt blocks.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt was conceived by Cleve Jones in 1985. Jones and other volunteers hoped to create a memorial for those who had died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and to thereby help people understand the devastating impact of the disease by sharing each individual’s story. Today, the AIDS Memorial Quilt weighs 54 tons and includes nearly 50,000 panels dedicated to more than 110,000 individuals.
Back in 1988, I had not yet had any personal experience with anyone who had contracted HIV or who had been diagnosed with AIDS. The quilt squares helped me bridge the abstract numbers to connect with the lives of individuals.
If a quilt were to be made for the 1 million lives lost to the coronavirus, the quilt would weigh 486 tons. Here are a couple of ways that people are sharing the stories of their loved ones who fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic.
A sea of white flags, with each flag representing one person who has died from the virus in the United States, were planted in the National Mall. Many of the flags featured handwritten names and dedications to lost loved ones. The memorial, titled “In America: Remember,” was the work of Maryland artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg.
“We are recapturing the human dignity of each one of these people who have been compressed and … reduced to numbers,” Firstenberg said, during the opening ceremony in September. Photos of the memorial, including images of individual flags, can still be viewed online at inamericaflags.org. The website includes a Lost Loved Ones interactive map. Unfortunately, time has passed to submit flag dedications for the National Mall exhibit, but friends and family members are still encouraged to complete a form with a photo and a dedication to be placed on the interactive map, which is continuously updated.
Another option is to follow @FacesOfCovid on Twitter, where people share stories of those lost to the coronavirus. “They were more than a statistic,” the Twitter site states. Each day, there are several new tweets with stories and photos.
We can also start by talking to one another. Ask each other whether they know someone who died. Listen to their story.
Social scientists who study grief say that memorials are crucial elements to the grieving process. Memorials serve as a way to tell one’s story, benefiting not only the victims’ families but also the surrounding community so people can understand the human toll of a mass tragedy like this pandemic. These stories can force us to face this tragedy in a way numbers alone cannot do.
Let us remember the individuals and not just the number.