Black Americans Share Stories of COVID-19 Grief

As hospitals offered goodbyes with iPads, and funeral homes were able to bury the dead without any services at all, the COVID-19 epidemic began, leaving families in a unique, isolating state of grief..

This buried grief, which was 1.9 times greater than that of white Americans at the beginning of the pandemic caused by COVID-19, is part of a long history unacknowledged suffering. Black Americans are subject to discrimination medically since slavery. Scientific journals had previously claimed that Black people were more sensitive to pain. However, today, with the maternal death rate for Black women at 2.9x that of white women. The pandemic—and the racial justice reckoning that erupted after the death of George Floyd—only magnified many of the structural inequities that left Black Americans more vulnerable.

Andrea Ellen Reed was a photographer who drove from Minneapolis to Peoria in Illinois to photograph and interview Black Americans. She did this to document the lives of five Midwest families that had lost their loved ones to COVID-19. “You don’t always see stories about Black people in the Midwest,” says Reed, who wanted to document people and landscapes that were familiar to her. “There are some really powerful stories of everyday people that wouldn’t necessarily be told.”

The U.S. reported its first COVID-19-related death in May. Now, an estimated 9 million families are attempting to move forward without spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings, and children—and often without having been able to truly say goodbye. Here are some personal stories, edited for clarity.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (whose mother Clida Ellison Ellison passed away on March 26, 2020 aged 82) She was among the first COVID-19-related midwest deaths.

Cassandra Greer Lee, the wife of Nickolas Lee, died April 12, 2020, at 42 years old. Nickolas was at Cook County Jail in a pretrial setting when he received COVID-19.

Akeya Watley was the daughter of veteran Erving Burkes. She died April 20th, 2020, at age 74. Burkes came in contact with COVID-19 as he was a resident at an assisted-living facility.

Pamela and Roy Clayton’s son Russell Angelo ‘LoLo’ Porter died on April 29, 2020 at 47. LoLo, who was a resident of a nursing home with disabilities due to meningitis, died on April 29, 2020 at 47.

Sokonie Reed was the mother of Enid Z.Freeman, who died May 9, 2020 at 54. Freeman worked as a nurse in the frontlines during the initial stages of the pandemic.

Ilhan Omar (U.S. Representative), whose father Nur Omar Mohamed, died June 15, 2020 at the ripe old age of 67. Mohamed, who was traveling through Kenya at the same time as COVID-19’s first reported cases in America, returned home to the U.S.

Rosie Ruth Morrow (married) and Jerry Louis Morrow (63 years old, November 22nd, 2020), died within 12 hours. Below are Steven Harris and Frida Harris–Hobbs and Saterrica Harris (their granddaughter), who remembers how close Rosie was to Jerry.

Francesca A. Armmer was an associate professor at Bradley University of Nursing. Ruby Diane Booker, her cousin, died Jan. 7, 2021 at age 78. Booker had been researching African American genealogy and history before her passing.

Laverne McCartney Knighton was the sister of Herbert Lee McCartney, who died Jan. 16, 2021 in his 69th year. Knighton regretted not being in a position to say goodbye to his brother.

Theresa Neal’s “sister cousin” Sabra Mitchell, and Sabra’s son Travon, were both hospitalized with COVID-19 in January 2021. Sabra died at the tender age of 62 on February 1, 2021. After being placed in an induced state for many weeks, Travon, 39 years old, opened his eyes.

Julianna Olesen also reports and produces.

National Geographic Society provided funding for this project.

Listen to audio recordings in depth of subjects speaking in their own words.

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