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Health | A million stories just as heartbreaking as mine: How humble death notices captured COVIDs historic toll

Ryan Elliott couldn’t put off writing his father’s obituary any longer. Word was already spreading through Vallejo that his dad – a well-known commercial real estate broker and civic leader – had died.

But he had to work his way up to it. He and his brother, Jason, held warm childhood memories of their father teaching them to waterski at Lake Tahoe and drive off-road along the Rubicon Trail, but like many sons and fathers, their relationship was complicated. Their dad could be difficult – especially when it came to COVID-19.

The first week in January – nearly two years after the pandemic began and a year after the vaccine first became available – Ryan sat down with his laptop and began:

“Stephen Raymond Elliott was born in Vallejo, CA and spent his 76 years of life as a fixture of the community,” he wrote, “before passing from this life due to complications caused by COVID-19 and acute stubbornness.”

Acute stubbornness.

“Anybody could read into that and understand,” Jason Elliott said, “that odds are he probably didn’t have a vaccine.”

As Americans near a cruel milestone of one million COVID deaths, personal obituaries like Stephen Elliott’s, humble death notices written by family and friends, have become a heartbreaking historical record of the worst pandemic of our lives.

In carefully worded expressions of pain and regret, published in newspapers and online, they chronicle the virus’s surges, mandates and breakthroughs, and the cultural clashes and family turmoil that continue to divide the country. And they reveal, through their numbers and tone, how we have struggled in the COVID era with the oppressive ubiquity of death, a subject so many of us spend our lives avoiding.

With gatherings banned for much of the last two years, obituaries often bore the weight of a funeral, the significance of a eulogy.

No longer did they carry the comforting clichés that a loved one had “died surrounded by family,” a time-honored deathbed ritual that proved a family’s devotion, and, for the dying, suggested a final state of grace.

Instead, the pandemic obituaries often shared how loved ones “suffered greatly from the COVID-19 virus and the separation from much-loved family.” They pleaded for family and friends “in lieu of flowers,” to “please wear your mask and comply with county health orders.” And, ultimately, they often spelled out their loved one’s vaccine status, sometimes like the Elliotts did, and other times explaining that the relative had died “despite being vaccinated and boosted” to blunt the stigma of a careless death.

Now, America is left with a million deaths, a million obituaries and a million families searching for the right words to sum up a lifetime cut short and complicated by COVID-19.

“That’s a million stories that are just as heartbreaking as mine,” said Lyn Balistreri, who wrote her mother’s obituary after she died in a San Jose nursing home at the height of the first winter surge.

“And it’s not just a million stories. It’s hundreds of millions of stories because everybody who died has extended family and friends who love them. It is the human suffering, not just the victims who died, but the people who are left behind. It’s kind of unfathomable.”

March 17, 2020

‘Without family by his side’ Gary Young, 66, Gilroy U.S. COVID deaths at the time: 152 | California: 24 | Bay Area: 12 Stacey Silva sits before a blanket made in memory of her parents at her Gilroy home on May 10, 2022. She is heartbroken that she couldn’t be at the side of her father, Gary Young, who died of COVID-19 during the pandemic’s early days. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

When Stacey Silva’s mother died of cancer the year before the pandemic, the whole family had gathered around her bedside. Stacey had held her hand, apologized for those times she had been “a bad daughter,” and told her the family would be OK, that it was alright to let go.

When her father died of COVID, she was denied that closure, and wanted the world to know in his obituary:

“His family wished they could have been there with him, but due to Covid-19,” she wrote, “Gary passed without family by his side.”

Gary Young died so early in the pandemic, on the first day of the Bay Area’s unprecedented lockdown in March 2020, that Stacey was shocked when a security guard outside St. Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy stopped her from rushing in. “I flat out told him, ‘You’re not keeping me out here,’” she said. “I was bawling my eyes out and I said, ‘My dad is dying,’ and he let me in.”

Just as she arrived at the windows outside her father’s hospital room, she watched the nurses turn off the heart monitor. Her father, who was such a people person that his goodbyes at parties could take an hour, died without a single friend or relative at his bedside.

Left: Stacey Silva’s arm is tattooed with the dates of the deaths of her parents. Her mother, Melody Young, succumbed to cancer in March 2019 with her family gathered around her. Right: the obituary Stacey wrote for her father.  (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

“I couldn’t say those last words to my dad. He couldn’t hear my voice. He couldn’t feel the comfort of me holding his hand as he took his last breath,” she said. “COVID didn’t just take my dad, it took everything surrounding his death for me.”

To try to make up for what was lost, she said, “I wanted to be able to give him that perfect obituary.”

In her pajamas on the couch, she tapped it out on her phone:

The 66-year-old retired cabinet maker worked at Lowe’s and was known “for his corny jokes, his big heart, and his ‘good morning’ greeting no matter the time of day.”

Then, with a casual certainty that now seems naïve, she included plans for “His celebration of life… on Saturday, June 27, 2020 at 2pm.”

Her mother’s service had drawn nearly 100 to pay their respects, but with county health officers discouraging all gatherings in 2020, fewer than 10 people showed up in her backyard to remember her father. Even her brother from Illinois didn’t risk it.

Back then, who could imagine the lockdown would last so long, much less become a fixture of our lives?

“I had no idea,” she said, “what the world was getting into.”

Jan. 5, 2021

‘Took away our ability to hug you’ Jo-Anne Balistreri, 90, San Jose U.S. COVID deaths at the time: 370,550 | California: 35,935 | Bay Area: 3,272 Suzanne Balistreri, left, Lyn Balistreri, center, and Viana Gerke yearned to hug their mother, Jo-Anne Balistreri, in her final months at a San Jose healthcare center before she died, separated from family, of COVID-19 in 2021. Tens of thousands of families around the country suffered such painful isolation as the virus ravaged vulnerable nursing homes. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

If the pandemic took away the final days of togetherness for loved ones, it brought a special kind of misery to nursing homes, where so many elderly Americans died after months of painful isolation.

At Skyline Healthcare Center in San Jose, a stroke had damaged Jo-Anne Balistreri’s cognition and left her unable to speak, so when family members showed up with balloons on her 90th birthday and waved from outside her window, she looked bewildered.

“She didn’t understand why we couldn’t come in,” her daughter, Lyn, said. “There’s always that wondering of whether she just felt abandoned by us.”

The hands of Jo-Anne Balistreri’s daughters — Suzanne, left, Lyn , top, and Viana — with the obituary of their mother on April 23, 2022, nearly 15 months after her death. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

By early December 2020, county health officials were investigating a COVID outbreak and sending reinforcements to Skyline, where more than 80 people had been infected. Hospitals would soon be overwhelmed by California’s deadliest surge, but the delivery of the first COVID vaccines, which were to be expedited to nursing homes, was only weeks away. Jo-Anne’s family had hoped she would live long enough to feel their embrace. But days before she was to receive a first vaccine shot, she tested positive for the virus. She died on Jan. 5, 2021.

In the first months of the pandemic, nearly half of the country’s COVID deaths were among nursing home residents, but the death rate fell dramatically when vaccines became available. To date, the virus has killed more than 200,000 in America’s nursing homes.

Some of Lyn’s relatives dismissed the idea that COVID had been a prime factor in her mother’s death because she already suffered from a number of chronic conditions. But Lyn insisted on making a point of it in the obituary: Her mother had died “briefly after contracting COVID-19,” Lyn wrote. “She deserved much better and should have had her loving family around her.”

She loved animals, became the family breadwinner working as an accountant at Cypress Semiconductor in the ‘80s when her husband became disabled, and “never lost her wry sense of humor or sharp wit.”

Near the end, in a direct message to the mother she lost, Lyn wrote: ​​”Though the pandemic cruelly took away our ability to hug you in your final months and moments, we never stopped thinking about you.”

Oct. 11, 2021

‘Even though the vaccine … did not work for her’ Valerie T. Romero-Lopez, 61, Pittsburg Number of U.S. COVID deaths at the time: 720,572 | California: 72,091 | Bay Area: 6,728 The Romero-Lopez family — husband Daniel Lopez, right; daughters Selena Vasquez, left, and Sabrina Contreras, center; and father Edward Romero — surround a picture of Valerie Romero-Lopez in Pittsburg, Calif., on April 14, 2022. Valerie died of COVID-19 in October 2021, stunning the family, who hoped she was safe because she was vaccinated. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

The promise of a vaccine was immense. Even supporters of President Donald Trump in early 2021 cheered and waved American flags as the first batches were delivered to hospitals. When the delta variant spiked last fall, there was a general reassurance that if you were vaccinated, you might get sick from what we started calling breakthrough cases, but you wouldn’t die.

So when Sabrina Contreras dropped off her mother at the hospital with breathing trouble last September, she wasn’t too worried.

“I said, ‘Mom, you may need a little bit of extra care, but you’re gonna be fine’ – and she felt like she was gonna be fine.”

At age 61, Valerie Romero-Lopez had asthma, but she had been extremely careful to avoid the virus. Not only did she routinely wear a mask, she encouraged everyone around her to do the same – and get the vaccine as she had.

A picture of the late Valerie Romero-Lopez is part of a handmade memorial collage in her husband’s Pittsburg home. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

She had been getting better at first and was looking forward to returning to the marketing company she and her husband, Danny, had established, and enjoying her 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and being their favorite cheerleader at Little League games. But after two weeks, Sabrina said, “suddenly it just changed.”

Through her labored breathing, Valerie told her daughter and husband to look for a box where she kept her important papers, where she had written down her wishes if she died. She wanted to say more. They both told her to hush.

“It was like, ‘Mom, it’s OK. You don’t have to worry about that. You’re gonna get better,’” Sabrina said. “We wanted her to save her breath. We thought we had time.”

Her mother died Oct. 11, 2021, 10 days before the CDC widened the eligibility for the booster shot that would have included Valerie.

Like many others, her family was discovering how vaccines had taken us from no hope to unreasonable hope.

Still, it was important, Sabrina said, that her mother’s death not be fodder for deniers to suggest that the vaccine doesn’t work. According to CDC data, during the delta wave, the unvaccinated were 15 times more likely to die than those who received the injection.

In Valerie’s case, the odds didn’t save her. But Sabrina knew her mother’s wishes when she wrote her obituary:

“Even though the vaccine in the end did not work for her, she would still continue to let her loved one’s (know) to get vaccinated, get their booster shots when available and even vaccinate their children.”

Jan. 9, 2022

‘Chose to put his faith in God’ Arthur Samuel Wilson Jr., 87, Watsonville Number of U.S. COVID deaths at the time: 838,179 | California: 78,742 | Bay Area: 7,189 Katheryn Wilson sits in the Watsonville bedroom of her late father, Arthur Samuel Wilson Jr., on April 21, 2022. Convinced God would protect him, she said, he refused to get vaccinated and died of COVID-19 in January 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Arthur Wilson was 87 and had survived two strokes, colon cancer, pneumonia and sepsis. He wasn’t afraid of COVID.

“God will protect me,” he told his daughter Katheryn Wilson.

“But Dad,” she told him, “God protects those who help themselves.”

It was an argument that went nowhere. “Under no circumstances,” he told her, would he get the vaccine.

Her father, who listened to Christian radio stations all day, felt he was stronger for surviving his other ailments. His daughter, who graduated from nursing school, knew they made him more vulnerable.

Like so many others during the pandemic, they each calculated the risk — and debated how to confront it — through their own unique prisms.

A family picture of Arthur Wilson. Katheryn and her father had been estranged for years, but she rekindled the relationship to care for him as he passed. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Father and daughter had been estranged for 40 years, but as Arthur got older and sicker four years ago, Katheryn insisted he move from Connecticut to Watsonville where she could care for him in his final years. It had been especially difficult, she said, “taking care of my old man that didn’t really take care of me. But that’s what I did.”

Still, Katheryn is the one feeling guilty for his death. In early December 2021, just before the omicron variant took off in the United States, she temporarily admitted him into a small nursing home. Overwhelmed with his round-the-clock care, she needed a short break, she said, just six weeks to rejuvenate her spirit. But six days before he was supposed to return to Katheryn’s care, he came down with COVID symptoms. He died within days, on Jan. 9, 2022.

“He made this decision based on his faith,” she said, “but now, I can’t even shake him by the neck and say, see what you did?”

She tried to set that aside as she drafted her father’s obituary and wrote about how his parents called him Sonny Boy, how he loved “Gunsmoke” reruns and pizza. Then she explained his death as respectfully as she could.

“He declined a vaccine,” she wrote, “and instead chose to put his faith in God.”

Jan. 14 and 19, 2022

‘Carol passed away … from Covid-19 as well.’ Carol Ann Wilke, 51, Redlands | Michael Wilke, 52, Redlands Number of U.S. COVID deaths on the 14th and 19th: 838,179; 850,926 | California: 78,742; 79,585 The family of Carol Ann Wilke — her sister Christine Adams, right, and husband Sal Perez, left; and their children, Zachary Jeune, 24, and Colton Waller, 7 — with a photo of Carol on her wedding day with Michael Wilke. Amid a national debate over pandemic politics and science, the Wilkes refused to get vaccinated and died of COVID-19 five days apart in January 2022. (Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG) 

Carol Wilke’s family said they chose to focus her obituary on the sister they knew before she started believing politics over science, before she and her husband, Michael, became convinced that the vaccine was somehow worse than the virus.

“We wanted it to be about the beauty that she created in this world,” Carol’s sister, Christine Adams, said, “not any kind of angst that her family had about her. She paid a much higher price than we did. Her punishment was that she got COVID and died.”

So they wrote about Carol the hairstylist who “always wanted to help others feel beautiful,” and Carol the “peacemaker” who “never missed a loved one’s birthday.” The obituary for Michael, written by his family, said he enjoyed spending time “camping and off-roading in the San Bernardino deserts and mountains.”

They left out that Michael believed that the government “put something” in the vaccine to track people, his mother said, or that in the days before his death, he called from the hospital hysterical, yelling “get me out of here!”

Carol’s obituary didn’t mention how as her breathing became labored, she was seeking doctors who could acquire Ivermectin – the antiparasitic drug that vaccine skeptics falsely promoted as a COVID treatment – or that her sister is still haunted after discovering one of Carol’s last Google searches before she died: “Can I get vaccinated when I have COVID?”

Left: A family photo of Carol Ann Wilke and Michael Wilke. Right: Carol took this selfie in her hospital bed before she died, having finally realized her tragic error in avoiding vaccination. (Photos Courtesy of Christine Adams) 

“The whole thing is just a disaster,” Christine said.

Carol’s father, Alfred Adams, gets choked up when he thinks about her final moments, about how her change of heart came too late. He had talked his way into her hospital room and held her hand as she begged him to convince her cousin, Denise, and friends to do what she didn’t: get vaccinated.

“Tell them to look into this window and see me, and then they will take it,” she told her father. “Then she started breathing real hard and she couldn’t (speak) any longer.”

But even that deathbed revelation didn’t convince the doubters in a divided family. Cousin Denise Harlacker said she doesn’t have respiratory problems like Carol and Michael did. And Carol, she said, would respect her right to make her own choice to avoid the vaccine.

Besides, she said, “I already had COVID, and I didn’t die.”

Jan. 5, 2022

‘Complications caused by COVID-19 and acute stubbornness’ Stephen Elliott, 76, Vallejo Number of U.S. COVID deaths at the time: 832,091 | California: 78,232 | Bay Area: 7,138 Ryan Elliott, who wrote in the obituary of his late father, Stephen Elliott, that he died of COVID-19 “and acute stubbornness,” sits in his Palo Alto home on May 4, 2022.  (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Ryan Elliott’s line about his father’s “acute stubbornness” wasn’t meant to be hurtful. After running it by his brother and stepmother, they agreed that although it carried a heavy truth, a little levity might help those who loved and knew him to come to terms with the end.

At 76, their father was a longtime smoker but considered masks a nuisance, and the virus overhyped. The well-known real estate broker who often shared conservative email strings with friends had attended a mid-December wedding in Napa and, as his older son Jason put it, “telling my father not to do something was like yelling at the sun and telling it to go away.”

He wasn’t hospitalized long when he “was full of regrets and sadness, and remorse and all those things that kind of come along, when you’re on that, that end of things,” Jason said.

“I should have listened to your warnings,” he recounted his father telling him. “I should have gotten the vaccination. I shouldn’t have been so stubborn.”

Jason Elliott holds a photo of his father Stephen on April 23, 2022. He recalls his unvaccinated father telling him from his deathbed, “I shouldn’t have been so stubborn.” (Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

Ryan is grateful for the trip last summer that his father took with his grandson, Dash, in the old Jeep to the Upper Lake along the Rubicon Trail, where the brothers will spread their father’s ashes this summer. Jason will miss his father’s business advice and the time he spent with his granddaughters.

At the end of the obituary, Ryan promised a memorial service “when there is less risk of spreading the virus that ended his life.”

They waited four months, until May, to hold the gathering, as America’s death toll was nearing the imponderable.

With cases rising again, Ryan – who is vaccinated and boosted – took a COVID test a couple of days before the service just to be extra careful. Some of his father’s old buddies might be especially vulnerable. It was negative.

During the reception, guests shared stories about his father’s generosity and love of vintage cars. Several pulled Ryan aside and whispered, “We shouldn’t have lost him. It was preventable.”

Two days after the service, Ryan and his wife woke up with sore throats and feeling fatigued. This time they tested positive.

They immediately alerted the guests.

Staff researcher Veronica Martinez and data reporter Harriet Blair Rowan contributed to this report. This is the second in a series about the pandemic’s staggering toll of a million deaths. Read part one here.

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