By Marc Fisher, Lizzie Johnson, Christine Spolar and Nick Aspinwall
One million dead: The U.S. death toll from the covid-19 pandemic will hit that unfathomable number this week, and yet there is a far larger number that reflects the true impact this virus has had on Americans over the past two years. That number is 9 million — the number of Americans who have lost spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings and children to covid.
Sociologists at Penn State and the University of Southern California came up with a “bereavement multiplier,” a way to calculate how many close relatives each covid death leaves behind and bereft. The answer, on average, is nine — not including extended family or close friends, longtime co-workers, or next-door neighbors, many of whom, the study said, are deeply affected, too.
Covid quickly became the third-biggest killer of Americans, behind only heart disease and cancer, according to federal statistics for 2020. One million is how many people live in San Jose, Calif., or Austin, Tex., or in Montgomery County, Md., or Westchester County, N.Y. It’s more people than live in the six smallest states or D.C., about as many as live in Delaware or Rhode Island.
In all likelihood, the death toll is significantly higher than the official 1 million, the National Center for Health Statistics reports, noting that some Americans whose death certificates list heart attacks or hypertensive disease likely had undiagnosed coronavirus infections.
Americans have died of covid at a higher rate than in any other major industrialized country, and life expectancy for Americans has fallen over the past two years at the sharpest rate since the double whammy of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic.
The one million dead may seem like a random group, yet they fall into clear patterns: Those killed by covid were mostly old; disproportionately low income, Black or Hispanic; and overwhelmingly unvaccinated. People who did not get the shot were 53.2 times more likely to die than fully vaccinated and boosted people.
Yet in those concentric circles of grief around the 1 million are people of every age, every income level, and every background, vaccinated and not. In the ripples that bubble outward from each death, the tensions and divisions of American society are at play. Covid honors no walls.
As the country marks the million milestone, these are stories of five who died — and the many others who carry on with a gaping hole in their lives.
Missing Mommy and Daddy
Kevin and Misty Mitchem’s four kids — 12-year-old twins Taylor and Aidan; Leah, 15; and Riley, 17 — were at their house in Stafford County, Va., one day last September when their aunt, Janine Sutter, drove up from South Carolina to fetch them and take them to their new home — hers.
The kids’ mother had gone into the hospital with covid and was quickly put on a ventilator. Now their father, who contracted covid first but seemed to be doing fairly well with it, was in a different hospital. Sutter, Misty’s older sister, made a beeline for Virginia.
She packed the kids’ bags and drove four children, two cats and a dog 450 miles southwest to her place. What she didn’t tell them immediately was that she’d already gotten word as she drove north: Misty, who was diabetic, had died on Sept. 24, just four days after she entered the hospital, just two days after she was put on a ventilator. She was 46 years old.
Kevin, a healthy 48-year-old equipment operator, now with a hacking covid cough, would fight on, but 14 days after Misty died, on Oct. 8, he, too, would succumb. He also left behind a 22-year-old daughter from an earlier relationship.
Sutter waited until they were settled into what would become the children’s new home before she told them about their mother.
Six months later, the shock still feels fresh, yet the children, she said, have managed to make friends and find new activities.
One of Sutter’s friends bought each of the children a bulletin board to put up on their bedroom wall. Each is now covered almost entirely with photos of the kids with their parents.
Behind Sutter’s home, the family put a plaque under a big tree: “The Kevin and Misty Tree,” it says, and there’s a bench nearby, and a hammock to lie in. Sutter and her husband raise foster puppies for a rescue facility, and the Mitchem children delight in playing with them; there are 14 pups on their two-acre property now.
For Sutter, the death of her sister and brother-in-law has meant an abrupt new chapter of life. She has a house full of kids once again; her own two children are grown and out of the house — one in the Army and one in college. Sutter has had to arrange for braces for three of her sister’s children, tutoring for one, counseling for all. There are mouths to feed, bodies to clothe.
The day after she and the kids arrived in South Carolina, Sutter had all four of them vaccinated. Their parents had decided against getting the shot. Kevin, according to his brother, had spent a lot of time on Facebook, where he picked up notions about the vaccine being dangerous or part of some conspiracy against former president Donald Trump.
“We’d tell Kevin, ‘This is not a joke, it’s real,’ ” Mike Mitchem recalled. “And he’d say, ‘The government wants to microchip us.’ I could have wrung his neck. And then when he was in the hospital with covid, he called our mother and he said, ‘Mom, I love you, and I wish I would have got the shot.’”
Kevin’s parents, who have lived in the same house in Prince William County, Va., since 1983, are selling the place now. They can’t live with their expectation that Kevin, his dad’s right-hand man, will pull into the yard any minute, ready to fix what needs fixing.
Misty’s family pushed for the vaccine, too. Her brother, Bobby Newton, a police officer in Muscle Shoals, Ala., tried to persuade Kevin and Misty to get the shot, but, he said, “for Kevin, the politics got involved, and he wasn’t going to do it. I keep thinking I should have pushed harder for Misty to get it, but they’d been together for a long time, and you know how that is.”
“Stubbornness runs in our family,” said Kathy Newton, Misty’s mother. “Kevin kept saying it’s not necessary. When Misty died, I was mad at Kevin a whole lot. It’s taken me a long time to let loose of the anger.”
The pandemic and families
Both families feel the gap every day. When Washington’s football team finally picked its new name, Mike Mitchem reached for the phone to call his older brother to find out what Kevin thought of “Commanders.” Mike put the phone back down. When snow fell this winter, Mike reflexively revved up his truck and readied to meet his brother at one of the shopping centers they’d long plowed together. Mike went alone.
Seven hundred miles away, in Killen, Ala., Misty’s mother, feels what’s missing every day. “I don’t know how I’m going to get by without her,” Newton said. “I know this: The kids aren’t supposed to die first.”
At 8 o’clock most mornings, she gets a text from Taylor, one of Kevin and Misty’s twins. “I love you and I still miss Mommy and Daddy,” it says.
Her grandmother replies: “It can’t be helped, but God is watching over you all the time and He’s up there with Mom and Dad, so they’re not alone.”
A restaurant in mourning
It’s been nearly two years since Ming Wang died of the virus, and still the customers come, filling the tables of his small Nebraska restaurant.
There’s the mayor, usually the first to comment on posts on the restaurant’s Facebook page. The police chief, who likes ordering Emperor’s Delight, and who sends patrol cars by on nights when Ming’s widow is locking up alone. Just as they have throughout the 33 years that Ming’s Restaurant has been open in Papillion, right outside Omaha, they come — judges from the nearby courthouse, and families with children who’ve grown tall and lanky, then brought their own children.
They come for the food — served hot and fresh on big white plates — and to show support for Ming’s family. He was the first person many of them knew who died from the coronavirus.
After contracting covid on a cruise to New Zealand in March 2020, Ming was hospitalized for 74 days before he died on June 8. He was 71 years old.
Afterward, his adult children draped black mourning cloth over the restaurant’s exterior. His wife, Lu Wang, dressed in Black and pinned a white cloth flower to her lapel. In the year after his death, she barely left the house. She didn’t want to go out in public, where everyone seemed to know her husband, whom she’d met in kindergarten in their native Taiwan. At Target, at AutoZone, everyone stopped to give their condolences.
The first of everything was difficult. The one-year-anniversary of the ill-fated cruise, which they marked by getting their vaccine shots. The anniversary of Ming’s death, when his family released white balloons with long yellow strings into the sky.
“As the world keeps moving on around me, I am still standing, still trying to figure out how I should be,” his daughter, Anne Peterson, 42, posted on Facebook in September 2020. “Should I be better by now? Should I be less sad? Happier?”
Time hasn’t helped yet. The second of everything proved just as hard, compounded by arguments with some customers over mask mandates and supply chain issues that forced Ming’s son, Ping, who took over the restaurant from his father, to raise prices.
In Ming’s absence, his family learned to believe in signs, in the pennies found on the sidewalk and the cardinals that alighted outside Lu’s living room window. Maybe it was Ming trying to communicate with them.
At Ming’s Restaurant, they’ve hung a photo of the patriarch above the counter, next to a bouquet of dried yellow roses.
Everyone — staff, customers — knew Ming’s story. How he learned to cook in Taiwan’s marines and taught math at a Taiwanese university before moving to the United States with Lu — a physical therapist — and 2-year-old Ping in 1977. They settled near D.C. before deciding to move to California. On their way west, in Nebraska, Ping got sick with a cold. They paused their trip so he could recover — and never left.
Ming got a job in the kitchen at Chu’s Chop Suey House, worked his way up to head chef, then opened his own family-style restaurant, which failed. He tried again, opening Ming’s Restaurant in 1989. Its success was hard-earned, built on long hours that kept him and Lu from their children. As Ming died, Ping promised his father he’d keep the restaurant going.
“By keeping Ming’s going strong, I keep a piece of my dad alive,” he said.
Ping, now 46, had worked as a flight instructor before taking over the family business. He and his sister worked at the restaurant from the time they were teenagers, taking on more responsibility after their father officially retired in 2003. To them, Ming’s was the embodiment of their father’s American Dream — the reason their family had been afforded so many opportunities.
Now, Ping feels lost without him. None of his father’s recipes were written down. Instead, Ping recalls them by memory. His favorite is Kung Pao chicken. Ming would flip the meat in the wok until it was fully infused with sauce — a process that takes so long that the dish was never put on the restaurant menu. Ping wants to write these recipes down, so Ming’s seven grandchildren can inherit his culture, too.
But at the end of days that stretch from 6 a.m. to midnight, fueled by coffee and Diet Coke, Ping doesn’t find time to open the journal he bought to record the recipes. He’s too busy buying supplies, paying bills, balancing bank accounts. His father’s ledgers still confuse him. Tucked in their pages are a flurry of sticky notes from Ming that don’t always make sense.
Ping used to stop by his parents’ home every morning to confer with Ming about the discrepancies. Now, he’s on his own.
Ping often runs his hands over the ledger’s pages, taking comfort in the indentations his father’s pen left on the paper. He thinks of his father, too, when he steps through the swinging doors to the kitchen. They need to be replaced. The black paint is chipping, the wood is notched and scarred. But Ping remembers how long it took Ming to hang them, how he couldn’t get the doors lined up quite right and joked that they would need to stay up forever.
Sgt. Jeff Payton has known the Wang family for more than three decades. He once did landscape for them. When the policemen finished eating, they stopped to give Lu a hug.
In recent months, she has emerged back into the world, spending time with her sister in Pennsylvania and getting a tattoo of a cardinal on her forearm, which she knows her traditional husband would have hated.
She hasn’t cleaned out their home yet. Ming’s urn is prominently displayed. But in the backyard, she chopped down his prized peach trees, which had always attracted swarms of bees in the spring.
Ping recently signed another five-year lease on the restaurant. He has begun renovations, reprinting the menus with a photo of his father’s face and considering a fresh look for the space.
In their culture, the spirit of the dead takes two years to ascend to heaven. Maybe this June, they think, their father will leave them. Even then, though, he’ll never be gone — not if customers continue to fill Ming’s Restaurant.
A frayed family
When covid stole Fareeda Beharry from their lives, her family lost not only their matriarch and primary breadwinner but also their anchor. Beharry, a Guyanese immigrant who died in New York City in May 2020, in the first huge surge of the virus’s devastation, was the mother who handed out apples to children on the street, organized birthday and holiday celebrations for her extended family, made mac and cheese for her kids because she thought it was quintessentially American, and held the family together when things got tough.
Covid had already hit the Beharry clan hard when Fareeda fell ill. In late March, as the virus spread through the city, overwhelming its hospitals, Fareeda’s mother caught the virus and died. So did one of Fareeda’s brothers. Then Fareeda started feeling poorly.
The path of contagion was never confirmed, but Fareeda’s adult children suspect that the wife of one of Fareeda’s brothers, a health worker who lived in an apartment one floor below Fareeda’s place in Queens, brought the virus home with her from her job at Elmhurst Hospital.
On April 11, Fareeda was taken to the hospital. After weeks on a ventilator, she died on May 28, days after suffering a pulmonary embolism. She was 60 years old.
Almost immediately, her family frayed. To this day, friction among the relatives persists over how Fareeda caught the virus, according to her children. Bianca, 32, and Ramesh, 33, said they no longer speak to their aunt and uncle and have never hashed out what happened when the virus swept through their family.
Everyone remains haunted by what might have been done differently, Ramesh said. He knows his mother would want her children to forgive their relatives, but Ramesh has no desire to reconnect.
“I just feel so low energy about it now,” he said. “It’s gone past from anger to just, not apathy, but just like … without her, I don’t see, I don’t feel this [sense of] family. It was really her making it come together.”
The family gatherings that Fareeda organized don’t take place anymore.
Over the past two years, Fareeda’s absence has loomed over everything the family has gone through. Their landlord tried to force Bianca and her father out of their apartment, even though they had a lease and the city had placed a moratorium on evicting tenants, Bianca said. Then pipes burst in the apartment, and it flooded.
As they figured out how to resist eviction, the family decided they’d be better off living elsewhere. But without the Medicare checks Fareeda got for caring for her mother, money was tight.
“Losing a financial contributor is a huge thing,” Bianca said. “People take advantage when you are younger and losing a parent. You’re in a vulnerable situation.” Watching her relatives die has corroded her trust — in family, employers, the health system. Although she’s fully vaccinated, Bianca said she understands the mistrust that makes others hesitant to get the shot.
Her employer at a financial services firm gave her bereavement leave but then asked her to work in person. When some customers resisted putting on a mask, calling the practice “ridiculous,” Bianca told them, “My mother died of covid,” and sometimes they would cry, and she would feel responsible. She’s expected to “be resilient” as a grieving woman of color in America, Bianca said.
The pandemic and minorities
Her job felt untenable, but when she interviewed for another and mentioned her mother’s death, she heard from a friend that they’d decided against hiring her because, she said, “it sounds like I have a lot going on.”
As life around her edges back to normal, she and her brother feel robbed of the chance to grieve their mother’s passing. Her loss has barely been acknowledged, by her community and by a country that she says seems eager to forget. Bianca started working with Marked by Covid, an organization that has pushed for acts of remembrance such as a moment of silence at the Super Bowl and an annual Covid Memorial Day — memorials that have not happened.
The silence eats at Bianca. She and her brother created a GoFundMe page for their mother and people generously donated $11,000, but beyond the money, there’s been too much silence.
“In our culture, death is talked about all the time,” she said. “We did 40 days of grieving, and we did a little ceremony after that. Why is it such an American thing to be so traumatized by death and grief, as if it’s not something normal?”
The beloved bus driver
They gathered in the Local 85 meeting room, people who drive the bus for the Allegheny County Port Authority, listening once again to the recording Karima Howard has saved on her phone, the sound of the dispatcher calling out to driver Marlon Lucas:
“Traffic to all units, please clear the air for an important message.” After a silence, the dispatcher makes the official announcement: “Operator Marlon Lucas is out of service. … You will be missed by all. … Over and out.”
Lucas was 57 and three years from retirement when he became the first of seven members of the Pittsburgh-area drivers’ union to park his bus and never return because of covid. When he died in December 2020, the county’s other drivers lost their organizer, the guy who put together Christmas parties, high school class reunions, the bowling league, even daily lunches in the crew room.
When Lucas died, the union lost its sense of unity, Howard said: “It sounds so simple, but Marlon was able to bring everyone together.”
Everyone felt his absence, said driver Frank Barber. “That crew room was empty. There was no socializing.” The card games and cookouts in the parking lot stopped.
Howard, who knew Lucas for more than two decades, has seen the change, too. “We didn’t trust each other anymore,” she said, not even on leaving a clean bus for the next driver. “I didn’t trust people to wipe it down. You’d re-wipe it.”
Barber went back to grade school with Lucas, five decades of shared life — recess hijinks, school dances, and everyday stories at the East Liberty bus garage about what happened on their routes.
On Dec. 18, 2020, Barber helped carry his friend’s casket.
“I never imagined I’d lose anyone to covid,” Barber said. “I wasn’t afraid of covid because of my faith. I trust in Jesus Christ. But I did what they said: I wore the masks; I’d wash my hands.”
Barber got the vaccine because his mother is 83 and because his friend was stolen from him by the virus.
At the house she shared with her husband of 34 years, Dana Lucas’s life has been a blur since Marlon died. “We went everywhere together,” she said. “Now I’m the designated driver for no one.”
Around the house, strange things happen since her husband died. “Sometimes I’m sitting in my bedroom, and I get a whiff of cologne,” the scent Marlon wore, she said. “And I think: ‘Thank you for letting me know you are here.’ ”
For six months after Marlon died, Dana, 59, slept in her son’s old room. When she finally moved back into their bedroom, “I changed the whole room, the bedding, the way it looked … I slept across the bed. Not like we did, side by side.”
Marlon remains everywhere his wife goes. Dana, a claims auditor for UPMC, a major health system in Pennsylvania, now takes the photos at social events. “Marlon always took the photos,” she said. “That was his thing.”
“I’m still a mom, but what is my purpose?” she asked. “I’m a new grandma — is that my new purpose? I’m just at a loss sometimes.”
Their house was paid off, and they were looking forward to their reward, retiring to the Maryland countryside, the culmination of a life together that began when Dana “pursued him on my 21st birthday,” she recalled. She’d celebrated first with her family, then skipped out later that night to find Marlon and his pals at the spot where they hung out.
Although Marlon had a girlfriend at the time, Dana stepped up and said, “It’s my birthday, and can I have a kiss?” He said yes.
Months later, after Marlon and his girlfriend split, he and Dana visited an amusement park together, spoke on the phone and started dating officially. They married in 1987 and had a son, now 27, and a daughter, 34.
The pandemic and essential workers
On Nov. 25, 2020, Marlon, who had been overweight and had pneumonia a few years ago, couldn’t catch his breath. The Lucases sat in their car outside an urgent care facility, waiting to be permitted into the building under covid rules. Three days later, his coronavirus test came back positive. He was told to get to the emergency room. Five days later, Dana, who in the meantime was herself diagnosed with covid, got a call: Get to the hospital right away.
She was greeted with condolences.
For the next year, Dana said, “I was so sick of hearing the news, too many people … And then you hear people who don’t believe. How could you not believe it? Let me tell you what I lost. Without any kind of warning. You at least have the chance to get a mask. You have the chance to get vaccination.”
Dana bears no anger toward those who won’t get vaccinated. “I can be angry over a lot of things — the fact that my husband isn’t here,” she said. “Why waste my anger on somebody who doesn’t care? I know what I have, and I know what I lost, and I refuse not to wear a mask outside of my house.
“I’m forced to go it alone. Every time I go into my car now, I am forced to go alone, by myself.”