When Honoria Bush, 32, began working as a nurse in February 2020, she did not know how much death she would soon witness. But just one month later, Texas would see its first confirmed COVID-19 case. Soon, the beds in the Houston hospital where she worked would be filled with patients on ventilators, many of whom wouldn’t survive.
But nothing could have prepared her for the moment her phone rang on Aug. 31, 2020, when she learned her brother, Chris Miller, had been taken to the hospital after his college roommate found him on the floor of their home, struggling to breathe.
Nearly four months later, on Dec. 18, 2020, Miller died from complications with COVID-19. He had celebrated his 22nd birthday just a month earlier and would have graduated college the following May.
“I felt like the wind was blown out of me — I was confused, I felt lost, and I felt so alone,” Bush told BuzzFeed News. “I literally felt like God had just taken the breath out of me.”
At the time of her brother’s death, the US had just passed 300,000 deaths from the virus — a number that, at the time, felt devastating and unthinkable. But on Tuesday, the US hit its grimmest pandemic milestone yet: One million Americans have now died of COVID-19, according to data from John Hopkins University.
It’s a staggering number of lives lost, a figure few could have imagined when the pandemic first swept the country more than two years ago. Death rates have been far higher in the US than in other wealthy countries, largely due to the vast amount of people who have opted against getting the vaccine. A mere 66% of Americans are fully vaccinated — far below inoculation rates of many other countries — and of that percentage, less than half have received a booster shot, CDC data shows.
One million can feel like a baffling number of deaths to make sense of. It’s the entire population of Delaware dying. It’s every seat filled in 18 Yankee Stadiums. If we had a moment of silence just one second long for each person who has died, it would last 11 and a half days. The COVID-19 pandemic is easily the most deadly event in US history, far exceeding the numbers of Americans who died in the American Civil War, World War II, the 1918 pandemic, and the AIDS epidemic.
But there is an even greater number to contend with — those who have had a loved one die from the virus. For every COVID-19 death, an average of nine “close relatives” will be left behind to grieve, according to a July 2020 study cited by Ed Yong in an Atlantic piece in March. That’s an estimated 9 million bereaved Americans, or about 3% of the population — a shocking number that doesn’t include those who have had someone close to them, but outside their family, die.
Five grieving Americans — a sibling, a spouse, a son, a mother, and a friend — told BuzzFeed News what it feels like to have a loved one be rendered to a statistic, one in a sea of a million.
“I realize to most people that he is just a number, and that’s hard, because that one person in a million was my everything,” said Katie Coelho, 35, whose husband Jon died of the virus in April 2020 at age 32.
Even as newsrooms in the US published hundreds of thousands of obituaries in an attempt to put faces to the numbers, the sheer scale of loss has largely desensitized the public to this mass casualty event. And as time goes on and vaccine mandates are dropped and mask requirements are lifted, most people are trying to settle into the new “normal.” But for these five people and 9 million others, “normal” is a place they may never return to.
"One million empty chairs around the family dinner table," President Joe Biden said in a CBS interview Thursday. "Irreplaceable losses, each leaving behind a family, a community, forever changed because of this pandemic. My heart goes out to all those who are struggling, asking themselves, how do I go on without him? How do I go on without her?"
Bush, the nurse, went back to work just two weeks after her brother’s death, caring for patients dying of the same virus that killed him. She poured her whole heart into nursing, turning her grief into purpose in order to survive it. It took a degree of compartmentalization — her coworkers know not to bring up her brother at work, she said, so she can hold it together during her long, taxing shifts.
Though nearly a decade apart in age, Bush and Miller were about as tight-knit as siblings can get. She treasures memories of weekend mornings together, when the two of them, as well as their middle sister, would crawl into bed with their mom and watch Law and Order together. Miller was only seven when Bush went off to college, and the separation was tough on them both, but they remained close through phone calls and visits.
“He did not understand why I had to leave,” Bush said. “I was in a band in high school, and my mom would tell me he would play this one song I sang the lead on over and over again, every morning, just to feel close to me.”
Knowing one of the dearest people in her life is now one of the million Americans whose lives have been cut short by the pandemic is hard for Bush to fathom, both as a nurse and as a sister.
“I’ve seen some of those deaths personally — not just my brother, but patients who have come in,” Bush said. “Just constantly seeing death after death after death, that gets to you. And you feel hopeless, like I can’t help them, and I’m literally just watching them die.”
Coelho, like many whose relatives died of the virus, could not be with her husband in his final moments. But after gathering his possessions from the hospital, she opened Jon’s phone and discovered he’d found a way to say goodbye. He’d left her a note, telling her and their children, one last time, how deeply he loved them.
“I love you guys with all my heart and you’ve given me the best life I could have ever asked for,” Jon had written. “I am so lucky it makes me so proud to be your husband and the father to Braedyn and Penny.”
He had also included passwords she would need to access important documents, such as their mortgage. The story of the note went viral, resonating with millions as a tangible reminder of the tragedy that had taken 40,000 lives at the time of Jon’s death.
Nearly two years later, Coelho said her grief feels just as fresh. Several printings of that note now hang around her home, a daily reminder of the man who would do anything for his family. His absence has drastically altered her life; overnight, she became a single mom to their two children, one of whom has severe neurological disabilities.
“There’s no taking a moment and grieving, especially when you’re a grieving single parent,” Coelho said. “You’re in charge of making sure these little humans have the happiest life possible and they don’t ever feel the adult emotions of grief, but you’re still right in the middle of your grief.”
Carrie English, 46, has also had to navigate grief while continuing to be the best parent she can to her five children as she mourns the loss of her youngest child. In December 2020, her 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, died of COVID-19 complications.
“You’re never going to get over it, but you have to learn how to live with it daily,” English said.
Elizabeth’s room remains untouched since her death, frozen in time in the family’s home in Payson, Arizona. Even her toothbrush is in the exact same spot. But English knows her daughter — a cheerleader, the youngest of six, a kindhearted girl who was always checking to make sure people were OK — would want her to heal.
“I had a bout with COVID in November, which was really close to the anniversary of her death, and I had an issue where I wasn’t getting well,” English said. “Finally, I went to my doctor … and she was like, ‘Are you physically not making yourself get well?’”
“I really had to look into myself at that point … because there've been points where I’ve said I actually don’t care anymore, like I had one foot in the grave,” she said. “I really had to pull my shit together and say, You have to go on — Elizabeth would not want this.”
Watching a family member die of COVID-19 can feel like a nightmare come true, serving as hard, brutal proof of how lethal it can be. For Coelho, seeing her young, healthy husband killed by the virus has left her terrified, particularly when case rates rise and new variants emerge. Her son is severely immunocompromised due to his health issues, and she worries what it would mean if he was exposed. “It feels like March 2020 almost every day, because it’s just that fear that something’s going to happen,” she said.
Losing someone early on in the pandemic, when vaccines weren’t available and very little was known about the deadly virus, is especially hard on those in mourning. Getting vaccinated last February was an emotional experience for Coelho, because she knew Jon would have been first in line to get his dose in order to keep their kids as safe as possible. “Knowing that there’s something out there that doesn’t necessarily keep you from getting the virus, but could potentially help you from getting as sick as Jonathan did, and knowing that it came like 10 months too late, that was tough.”
The fact that Jon never had the chance to get vaccinated, while millions now chose not to do so, weighs heavily on Coelho. “You don’t want your family to ever go through what my family went through,” she said. “Knowing that people don’t understand the gravity of the situation, or they do understand the gravity of the situation and still aren't making the most safe decisions that they could be … it feels like what my husband went through means nothing.”
When James T. Campbell, 67, learned that officials, including former president Donald Trump, had known COVID-19 was airborne long before acknowledging it publicly, he found himself wondering what might have been if the government had acted differently. The Houston native’s father and namesake, James C. Campbell, died of COVID-19 on March 31, 2020, at the age of 88.
“After you’ve had a little bit of time to think about all the things that transpired and you look back in retrospect, [you think], If this would’ve happened, or if that would’ve happened, maybe Dad would still be alive,” James T. said.
The elder Campbell had five children, 34 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and a wife of 68 years, and his death has forever changed all of them. His wife has not slept in the bedroom since he died, James T. said, and the large extended family no longer gathers as often as they once did. He and his father were devoted sports fans, and he misses him every time there’s a big game and they can’t discuss it after. “It was really hard when the Astros made it to the World Series … not to hear the phone ring or not to dial his number to talk to him and get his opinion about the game,” he said.
Often, the absence of those little moments can be the hardest. Jared Misner, 31, used to have countless inside jokes with his best friend, Alison Schwartz. Months after her death, in April 2020 at the age of 29, Misner wrote of what he lost in a moving essay for the New York Times.
“What happens to our inside jokes that litter the filing cabinets of my mind?” he wrote. “Do they die along with her? Do I laugh to myself?”
Experiencing such a loss has changed Misner immeasurably. He says “I love you” to his friends and family more than he used to, understanding the pain of no longer being able to tell someone so. He knows what it’s like to desperately want to talk about the person you’re grieving, even when people don’t want to ask about them out of discomfort.
“Now when somebody dies, in addition to saying ‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘Tell me all about this person,’” Misner told BuzzFeed News. “Because it’s my only way now to talk about Alison, when people ask about her, and I wish people asked about her more.”
In the weeks leading up to the US hitting 1 million COVID-19 deaths, Misner would regularly check the latest numbers, struggling to make sense of it, sometimes subtracting one to imagine it didn’t include his best friend.
“Whenever I see that number, I will always think that Alison is one of those, and if we took her away, that number would decrease by one,” he said. “[I think], That three at the end, or that two at the end — what if it was a two, or what if it was a one instead?”
“While that number is unmanageable and that number seems unthinkable, just know that every single one of those people had a family, had friends, have people who are grieving and will be grieving forever,” Misner said. “So when you think about this big number, also think about those small numbers.” ●
Opening videos: Concept by Pablo Delcan for BuzzFeed News; renderings by Juan Delcan for BuzzFeed News.