OIn the U.S., COVID-19 has claimed the lives of over a million people.
Although the pandemic has impacted us all, some groups suffered more than others. TIME spoke with three people who lost family members to the same devastating disease—COVID-19—but under very different circumstances.
Kious ‘James’ Kelly
New York City, 48 years old
Kious “James” Kelly, above, and with his sister Marya Patrice Sherron
Courtesy Marya Patrice Sherron (2)
In March 2020 COVID-19 started to infect the U.S. health care professionals. Many did not have access to adequate personal protective equipment—including Kious “James” Kelly, an assistant nurse manager at Mount Sinai West hospital in New York City. Kelly, who had been caring for COVID-19 patients on his team, died March 24 from the disease.
Marya Patrice, a 47-year-old consultant and writer who appeared in the latest season of Survivor, reflects on her brother’s life and influence.
My hero, my brother, has been an idol to me since childhood. He could fix everything, which is why I remember running to him every time. When I was a kid, the saying was “If you’re in trouble, go to James. James will fix it.” He was so logical and methodical, but also humorous, super smart, and talented artistically.
He was 2½ years older than me, but I acted 10 years older than him. His choreography included leaping, pirouetting and dancing in the grocery shop. As a child, I didn’t like it. He was embarrassed. He seemed to not notice. He was the world’s stage. It didn’t matter where we were; if he was gonna dance, he was gonna dance. It is still one of my favorite memories.
He eventually moved to New York City and became a dancer, but it’s a short career. I remember him calling me and saying, “For my second act, I want to help people.” So that’s what he did, by becoming a nurse.
He loved his job, even though it was difficult. This was his special relationship with patients. Each time he entered a room it became brighter, warmer. You couldn’t not notice he was there. His aura was powerful, peaceful and exciting. Everyone responded.
When COVID-19 first started spreading in New York City in 2020, I didn’t know enough to be afraid for him. I was very stressed about our parents, because they’re older and had both been sick the year before. It didn’t occur to me to be worried about James, because there was so much we didn’t know at that point.
It was so quick. He had COVID-19, which I discovered on March 18, 2020. The same day, he was placed on a ventilator and intubated. He texted me telling me that he had COVID. I realized that my worries were wrong. It was a very overwhelming feeling. The hospital was very difficult for us to reach someone by phone. His death occurred on March 24, 2020.
I blame the hospital for his death in the moments that I need someone to blame, but I don’t when I’m more logical. They had issues with getting people personal protective equipment, but I realize that they really didn’t know what to do either. It’s so tragic, but I don’t know that there really is someone at fault.
It is overwhelming to consider that 1,000,000 deaths have been recorded in the United States. Screenshots of the death toll from around 600 years ago are available. My brother’s death was not yet reported in America. I hate saying this, but there’s part of me that has just had to shut down a little bit emotionally, after going through two years of people not wearing masks, not getting vaccinated, so much death. It’s all been so hurtful. It’s almost too much to digest. My brother didn’t even have an opportunity to get vaccinated.
I wish I could just scream on a mountain, “Love your neighbor.” It sounds so clichéd, but my mask isn’t for me; it is because I’m thinking about someone else and preventing them from going through what my family went through. If I can do something to keep others safe, then I’m going to. That’s all it comes down to. Every single one of those people who died has impacted the circle around them, whether it’s kids or mothers or siblings or people in the community. We can’t understand that when we just see the number. It’s very difficult, very sad, and to some degree, unnecessary.
James is my inspiration. I was left with many beautiful gifts even in his absence. He was fearless and pursued all his goals. Dream big, live big, and don’t regret things. These values were ingrained in my brain to help him be proud.
I’m finally going to be fearless. It’s so strange for something so hurtful to also produce fruit, to bloom and flower. I continue to receive gifts because of the way he led his life. I’m grateful that I got to be his sister.
—As told to Jamie Ducharme
Continue reading: Don’t Say You ‘Can’t Imagine’ the Grief of Those Who Have Lost Loved Ones. Ask them to tell you their stories
Brenda Perryman, Pearlie Louie
Detroit, between the ages of 71 and 100
In one week, the author, top left, lost her mother Brenda Perryman and her grandmother Pearlie Louie, above
Heather Perryman – Tanks (2)
COVID-19 has caused the death of many people of color. This is due to the fact that people of color have more severe underlying diseases than those who are white. Black Americans are particularly affected by diabetes. In fact, 40% of Americans who died due to COVID-19 were diabetics.
Brenda Perryman, aged 71, was suffering from Type 2 Diabetes and passed away in April 2020. Pearlie Louie Perryman, her 100-year old mother, died one week later. Both were both afflicted by COVID-19. If a vaccine was available they could have had priority access for the shots. Heather Perryman Tanks reflects on her grandmother, mother, and their impact on the city.
This was where my mother was well-known. When she passed away, my mother’s face was on three news stations. They said that we had lost someone very special. She was an actress and a teacher of drama at high school. Her students were her teachers, and their children years later. Everywhere we went, people stopped her and said, “Ms. Perryman, Ms. Perryman, we wanted to say hello.” She was always out doing public speaking for the arts and hugging people and all that, so I think that’s how she caught COVID.
When she was first sick, it was March 20, 2020. She started coughing very badly. I was like, “Mom, you sound terrible,” and she said, “I’m fine.” But by the 26th, she had to go to the hospital—and that was the last time I laid eyes on her in person. After she had been admitted, I was able to see her via FaceTime.
She said, “Heather, I’m not doing well.”
I screamed, “Mom, you’ve got to fight for me—please fight, please fight!”
I called the doctor, and all he could say was “Well, she’s got diabetes, and if we can’t get her breathing again, I don’t know what to tell you.” They called us later and said they had to ventilate her. It was not necessary. However, my mother was already in agreement so I couldn’t question it.
They wouldn’t let me or my husband in to see her, so he drove me to the parking garage near the hospital, and I just cried and screamed for my mom from the outside. A week later she passed away.
My grandmother, who was at that time in a nursing facility, knew about my mother’s illness. The nursing home staff tested all the residents and sent everyone to the hospital. So my grandmother, who had COVID-19 was admitted. On Tuesday, the day before her death, I phoned her and inquired about her health. She was still in her right mind, and she said, “I’m just resting.” But I could hear that her breath was leaving her.
My mother died on April 5. The doctors told us not to tell my grandmother that she had died, so we didn’t. My grandmother, who was 100 years old, died April 12. It took COVID-19 for her to die at 100.
Both my grandmother and mother were close friends. I knew from childhood that I had to be there for my grandmother when she died. As it turned out, I didn’t have to comfort either one of them. They both died, but I still lost half my heart. I felt like I was in an alien place when they both died within one week.
COVID really had a devastating effect on the African American community. They always say that African Americans have more underlying conditions—more diabetes, more heart failure, more whatnot. I’m not going to say anybody did Black people wrong. You rarely see a Caucasian person die down here. In our neighborhood, it was there all the time. Somebody’s uncle, somebody’s brother, somebody’s mother.
This was early in the pandemic, and the hospitals didn’t know what they were doing. Some hospitals were sending patients home; others sent them to their deaths. It was quite overwhelming.
We’ve now reached 1 million people dying in the U.S. I see those numbers on TV and think, Oh my God, I can’t believe that. Never imagine you’ll be a part of this or that anyone else you know will. However, my grandmother and mother were both part of this statistic. Later on, my husband’s grandmother died of COVID-19 too, so it’s actually three people. This family was hard hit by the disease.
That’s why I feel like with the vaccines available now, I should do all I can—for my mother and my grandmother. I preach vaccines. My son is 16, and he’s had his booster. I don’t want him to have to go through what they went through.
—As told to Jeffrey Kluger
Clint and Carla Smith
Hogansville, Ga., age 62 and 62.
Elana Brown (right) with Clint Smith and Carla Smith.
Courtesy Elana Brown (2)
After vaccines became widely available in the U.S., the burden of COVID-19 deaths shifted onto unvaccinated adults—and onto heavily Republican parts of the country, where uptake of the shots was lowest (a trend that continues today).
In August 2021, during the Delta variant surge, husband and wife Brandon “Clint” Smith and Carla Smith of Hogansville, Ga., died from COVID-19, two days apart. Both had not been immunized. Elana Brown (33) remembers her grandparents.
You hope that even if you have to lose one parent, at least you’ll have the other. But when you haven’t even had a chance to grieve the first one before the second one goes, there are no words for that. It’s a double punch straight to your heart.
They were kind people. They had a lot of fun. Mama was a very eccentric person. She carried her turtle Houdini everywhere she went. Dad was quiet, one of those listen-before-you-speak people. Although they got married at the age of 13, I became friends with them first. He was the next-door neighbor, a motorbike-riding and long-haired man. However, he was only a soft and cuddly toy bear. He was my Daddy since I was 4 years old.
My parents were religious. They sometimes took things too far, it seems to me. This reached conspiracy-theory levels: They claimed Trump was great but Biden is the Antichrist. I begged them for the vaccine. The vaccines had microchips in them, so they felt COVID was a hoax. They felt like right now, we’re at the end times, and the vaccine had the “mark of the beast,” a sign of evil. They were so mad when I posted on Facebook that I’d gotten vaccinated. They were like, “You don’t know that they’re not tracking you, you don’t know that it doesn’t cause cancer. I really hope that you don’t die.”
In counseling, I’m still working through how they contracted COVID-19. I was told by my parents that they felt led to pray in the corner for their friend who had brought him to the hospital emergency room. Before they even touched him, he told them, “You may want to get away from me. I have COVID-19, and I’m really sick.” But they laid hands on him and prayed for him. My mom was short of breath less than one week later.
A couple of weeks later, I needed to call them to end their life support. The nurse gave me the iPad to view my mother after we had taken her off. It was terrifying; she didn’t look alive. It was terrifying; she didn’t look alive.
The exact same day, my dad’s organs began to shut down. This sounds unbelievable, but he felt that she had passed away. With every fiber of his soul, he loved her. Before he went on the ventilator, he called me, and we said, “I love you.” With Mom, I didn’t get to say goodbye.
I’m angry because they didn’t have to die. They didn’t even have to contract COVID that day. It’s very selfish. I don’t want to speak ill of the dead—especially not my parents—but I feel like they should have thought about what it would do to the people around them. I’ve never seen so much pain in my grandmother’s eyes. All she could say was, “You are not supposed to outlive your children.” Oh, it made my heart just crack into a million pieces.
I tell other unvaccinated people about the suffering my parents went through: how in the end, I wasn’t allowed to go into their room and hold their hand and tell them that I love them as they died. Everybody’s like, “I know that God is going to save me.” And they’re right, except he already did. These brilliant individuals came up with the vaccine that could save you. You refuse to acknowledge his assistance.
—As told to Tara Law
This article appears in TIME’s April 25th, 2022 issue.
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