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Finding A Way To Collectively Grieve The Lives Lost To COVID-19

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One COVID vaccine authorized for emergency use in the United States and more in the pipeline - that's the hopeful news today as public health officials all over the country prepare to launch a massive immunization campaign. This, of course, is just the beginning of that campaign. And we'll hear the latest details a bit later in the program.

We want to start, though, with an acknowledgement of the pain the virus has already caused and will likely continue to cause for months before the pandemic can be brought under control. At the current pace, the U.S. will reach another staggering milestone within a matter of days - 300,000 people dead from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. That's nearly 100 times the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks. So we wanted to spend a few minutes today thinking about how the country should acknowledge the tremendous toll the COVID crisis is taking. And given how divided the country has been over responses to the crisis itself, whether to wear masks and how much to disrupt daily activities and so forth, we're wondering how, indeed, if the country can find a way to grieve together.

We're going to discuss that now with Kristin Urquiza. She lost her father, Mark Anthony Urquiza, to the pandemic earlier this year. Since then, she's formed a nonprofit group called Marked by COVID that has led vigils to grieve for the lives lost to the virus. The group describes its mission as elevating the truth about COVID to save lives.

Kristin Urquiza, thank you so much for being with us once again. And of course, once again, I do want to say I'm so sorry for the loss of your dad.

KRISTIN URQUIZA: Thank you, Michel, for having me here. And I appreciate those condolences. It's been a really difficult time. But, you know, we are doing our best to continue to push forward to help, you know, create a space for folks to grieve in this really difficult time.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Sallie Lynch. She is with Tuesday's Children. That's a group formed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to help families affected by that tragedy and has since expanded its mission to help heal communities and families recover from tragedy all over the world. Sallie Lynch, thanks to you, as well, for being here today.

SALLIE LYNCH: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: Sallie, I'm going to start with you because I do wonder if you see a similarity to the 9/11 attacks because it seems like there are similarities and differences. I mean, 9/11 was this one shocking day, and all of our attention was focused on it. But with COVID, It's been this kind of drip, drip, drip. And as Kristin was pointing out - and has lived this - not everybody is affected in the same way, nor is the response the same way. So I'm just wondering how you see it. Do you see those two as similar or - in what way or different in what way?

LYNCH: Yeah. I mean, they both certainly have the wide-scale nature of them. But like you said, 9/11 happened in one day. And, you know, 3,051 children lost a parent that day. That who Tuesday's children was initially founded to serve. But like 9/11, you know, there were ripple effects on 9/11 that impacted a lot of other populations, first responders. And really those ripple effects went around the world. And the same is true about this pandemic.

But, you know, even the 9/11 families have commented early on about the prolonged nature of this and the drip, drip, drip effect of it and how that is just - the magnitude of it is is so much greater than what happened on 9/11, the death toll. But one of the universal things that we know is that the families who have lost loved ones are going to need long-term support. And I think that's where we need to step up as a society and really have that responsibility to be there for them and not just move on.

MARTIN: Kristin, I know you've thought a lot about - in fact, one of the reasons that we first met you was that in writing your father's obituary, you called to account officials who had not, in your view, taken adequate steps to protect the public and in fact, in some ways, in your view, had misled the public, which you felt led to the outcome. I mean, many people feel that way. Now, you've chosen to channel your grief in a way that raises awareness about the pandemic. But the fact is, nobody had to raise awareness about 9/11. And I wondered if you've thought about that in some way, about the way the country's responded to this crisis compared to the way it's responded to others. Do you have some reflections about that?

URQUIZA: I do. I think that as a nation and as humans, we're used to tragedy and crisis hitting really suddenly. So that's what we experienced with 9/11, but then also other national tragedies, whether it be Sandy Hook or Parkland. But in this case, because this is continually happening to us, we are sort of numb, in a way, to the magnitude and the order of magnitude of it. But that shouldn't negate the fact that we need to really respond in kind that is commensurate with the problem. And just as Sallie said, this is an order of magnitude that we have not seen.

And I think we need to bring radical imagination to it in order to ensure that the people who have been most impacted, the people who have literally been forced to sacrifice their lives, are - that justice is served to them and their families. And that has been - a lot of the work that I've been doing with people just like me who've lost a parent or a sibling or a partner over the course of the last couple of months is kind of thinking about, well, what does that actually mean? And, you know, we've obviously been looking at the 9/11 as an example. But I think that we're going to have to go even further.

MARTIN: And I do wonder - maybe Sallie, maybe you take this. I do wonder whether part of the difference here is that we can't get together to mourn together. So, like, after 9/11, there were all kinds of vigils and gatherings and community acknowledgements, I mean, all over the world. But, you know, in this situation, I mean, you have people close to you who die. You can't go to a funeral if you're even having a funeral. Sallie, I just wonder if maybe the circumstances are part of what makes this so painful.

LYNCH: Yeah, I think so. I mean, we certainly have seen with 9/11 and other tragedies and we're seeing it with COVID as well, that community is a powerful factor towards healing. And, you know, that's everything that we try to promote in our programming because isolation is, you know, the No. 1 risk factor for people who've suffered a traumatic loss. So making sure that those social supports and that community is in place is really important. So I think there does need to be some public education around this to show that those people need us to reach out to them, that we need to create a community, even if it's difficult and maybe some radical imagination around this to make sure that that can happen even in a virtual world while we're still going through this.

MARTIN: So let's look forward. Kristin, you started this conversation off by saying this calls for radical imagination going forward. Now that, you know, we do have a president-elect who will be taking office in a matter of weeks who has promised to take this seriously, who certainly isn't shying away, you know, from the crisis that this is and says he will give it his utmost attention, what are some of your ideas about how we can move forward as a country and acknowledge the losses, your loss and that of so many others?

URQUIZA: Well, we need a COVID national memorial day, first and foremost. That is a way in which we can ensure that we take the time to honor, acknowledge and grieve collectively and have the curriculum and the language in order to be teaching and living and breathing that this was a national tragedy and that, you know, people's lives were lost and as a country, we were forever impacted.

MARTIN: Sallie, I'm asking you to speculate here, and I'm going to ask the same question of Kristin. I do - I wonder if you envision a time when, as I said at the beginning of our conversation, this has been so divisive. I think many people would argue unnecessarily so - it shouldn't have been. But it is. It has become that. And I just wonder if there's a time when, as a country, we will kind of be unified in our acknowledgement of this loss. Or is that just too much to hope for given how this whole thing started?

LYNCH: (Laughter) It's never too much to hope for. I'm an optimist, so I would always hope for things like that. I mean, I can say, you know, with the 9/11 community, it's a very individualized process, the grieving process and all of it. And I think we as a country, we're all dealing with this as individuals. It's upended all of our lives in some way. So I think people do have a lot of anger around the pandemic.

But I do think there's hope. I know, you know, some of our 9/11 family members have found different ways of kind of coming to terms with what happened to them. I always think of one family member who was asked the question of, you know, aren't you angry and don't you want revenge for, you know, your brother being murdered? And he said that he was angry for a very long time. And he - you know, he realized at one point that holding onto that anger was like holding onto a hot coal, that it was causing him more harm than it was good. And so at a certain point, he had to let go of it.

MARTIN: Kristin, what about you? Do you see a time when you will feel healed?

URQUIZA: Yeah, I'm doing this while still actively grieving. I don't know. I mean, I'm going to my dad's cemetery this week - his grave to decorate it with Christmas decorations. And I'm really looking forward to that because it's kind of part of our culture to be able to do that. And it does seem like I'm starting to add in some of the pieces of quote-unquote, "normal grief." But it's going to take my entire life to come to terms with this. But I think I can learn to live with this, especially if we are able to ensure that these deaths were not just in vain. And I think this work around recognition and restitution and beyond is worthy.

MARTIN: That was Kristin Urquiza. She lost her father in June to COVID-19, and she's the co-founder and chief activist of the nonprofit Marked by COVID. We also heard from Sallie Lynch, senior program development consultant for Tuesday's Children. That is a group that helps communities and families recover from tragedy.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us today and sharing your thoughts.

URQUIZA: Thank you, Michel.

LYNCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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