By: Samantha Kummerer, Maggie Green and Jonah Kaplan
"She's not a statistic. She's not a number. She's my mom."
COMMUNITIES IN RED
MISSING FROM THE BENCH
TOO MANY FUNERALS
- Cheri Styons, lost mother to COVID-19.
A Quarter Million: America's Loss
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The United States of America passed a grim milestone on Thursday as the number of victims to the COVID-19 Pandemic surpassed 250,000… and counting. In partnership with ABC News and ABC-owned television stations, the ABC11 I-Team met with faith leaders, funeral home directors and business owners in some of the communities hardest hit by the pandemic in North Carolina.
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For every number there is a name; a departed smile behind every statistic.
Funeral directors, community members remember the lives of North Carolinians lost to COVID-19
"You’re dealing with grief, missing your loved one. You deal with pain because there’s a void that is there. And some deal with anger as you think about the ways in which you may have contracted the virus."
CARY, N.C. - Mycal Brickhouse remembers sitting on his back deck on a Sunday afternoon in July when the phone rang. “It was my grandfather who told me,” Brickhouse, a pastor in Cary, recalled to ABC11. “My grandmother spent close to 28 days in the hospital while fighting COVID in the ICU. The process in it of itself was gut wrenching.”
Patricia Brickhouse was 66; the woman known as “Mama” to Mycal and the rest of her family was revered for her being a “cheerleader” to her grandchildren. “You’re dealing with grief, missing your loved one. You deal with pain because there’s a void that is there. And some deal with anger as you think about the ways in which you may have contracted the virus,” Mycal added. “My grandmother did not go to stores, did not go shopping. She had a home health nurse. She did what she was supposed to do staying indoors but someway, somehow she contracted the virus.”
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After helping to console the rest of the family, the Reverend Mycal Brickhouse was then forced to console his congregation after the church’s matriarch, Marie Gibbs, died in September. “She was full of gratitude,” Brickhouse recalled about Gibbs, “She had an immense amount of gratitude and an iconic phrase I’d often hear her say: ‘Lord, I thank you.’” Moreover, Brickhouse is consoling his congregation without the ability to reach out physically--to give them a pat on the hand or a hug, or invite them to a meal. “I miss hugging people, I miss being in communion with folks, celebrating communion with people,” Brickhouse said. “I miss being able to enjoy meals with friends. I miss that human interaction.”
Brickhouse’s grandmother was 66 at the time of her death. Gibbs was 94. Both women, Brickhouse said, known for their capacity to love and take care of others. And though both women were older, Brickhouse said it’s important not to disregard the grief of losing a loved one. “When you get to know those individuals who are more than just a number and the legacies they leave behind, every person is significant,” Brickhouse said. “There is somebody right now who is weeping and mourning the loss of one of those individuals.” Instead, Brickhouse said the time of loss is a reason to celebrate community, accept help from one another and show gratitude, much like “Mama” and “Mother Gibbs” would have done. “The one thing for me, as a pastor, COVID reminds me of how connected we are. Even as there is such division in the world, we are really connected,” Brickhouse said. “When I think about having my own grief and then having to shepherd a congregation through that same grief, it causes me to remember that we are all in this life together.”
State health officials announced the first COVID-related death in North Carolina on March 25th; the Department of Health and Human Services that day reported just about 500 cases overall. Eight months later, the NC DHHS COVID19 dashboard reads more like a lesson in Calculus: a mass collection of numbers, lines and graphs explaining the trends and movement of this silent killer. A scrupulous reading of the statistics thus uncovers many intriguing - even heartbreaking - storylines. Among them, an ABC11 I-Team analysis finds a disproportionate effect on minorities, as well as rural areas beyond Raleigh-Durham. In fact, the 10 North Carolina counties with the highest death rate per 100,000 people are all rural counties: Jones, Hertford, Montgomery, Stanly, Edgecombe, Columbus, Vance, Bertie, Rutherford and Northampton. In Central North Carolina, Edgecombe County has seen 79 deaths from COVID-19 as of Thursday morning, but in terms of deaths per capita, the county has seen 115 deaths per 100,000 people, 411th among all counties across America. Vance County, ranked 489th in the country for death rate, has seen 51 deaths as of Thursday, but 105 deaths per 100,000 people.
It's not just deaths that we are grieving. We are grieving the loss of experiences and sharing moments together because we are stuck distancing from each other.
-Emily Smith-Greenaway, USC
The lives lost, moreover, are only one piece of a perilous puzzle of mourning: a study from the University of Southern California shows that nine family members are personally affected for every victim of COVID-19. That means more than one million Americans have personally lost a loved one to the virus. “It gives you a sense of how much grief and loss is blanketing our country right now,” Emily Smith-Greenaway, an associate professor in sociology and spatial sciences at USC, said in an interview with ABC11’s sister station KABC. Smith-Greenaway clarified, however, that the study’s data could only capture the effect of losing a close family member and does not account for more distant relatives or close friends and neighbors. “It’s not just deaths that we are grieving,” Smith-Greenaway lamented. “We are grieving the loss of experiences and sharing moments together because we are stuck distancing from each other.”
OF RPD TRAFFIC STOPS
OF RALEIGH'S POPULATION
Though Blanche Cafe has since reopened, Rocky Mount is a historic town that spans two of the hardest-hit counties in the COVID-19 pandemic. "Statistics have shown this area has a really high rate so we're doing all we can to ensure that we try to bring that down and react appropriately," Blackwell explained to ABC11. She’s lived in Edgecombe County for 27 years. "People say, 'I wish it could go back to how it was,' but things will never be how it was because this has drastically changed who we are in America.” But now that she's open again, her cafe houses a memorial for the city called "Missing from the Bench.”
Neva Blackwell held a grand opening for her new restaurant in downtown Rocky Mount, Blanche Cafe, in February 2020, which means she hardly enjoyed a month of welcoming new customers before the emerging pandemic forced the state to impose restrictions on businesses.
"I think we need those symbols and I also think we need the hope, and that's part of the beauty of this project is there is a whole lot of hope along with that. Certainly the memory and the honoring, but also the hope that we will be sitting on those benches again one day. "
Anthony Cunningham and Joanne Saget came up with the idea for the exhibit. They moved to Rocky Mount in June, hoping to open their own cafe. In May, Cunningham lost a close friend in New York to COVID-19. The friend, an antique collector, left Cunningham a bench, which inspired the exhibit. "The awareness we wanted to bring forth was not only to represent our friend but to bring awareness to the entire community of how it has infected us throughout all the states, throughout the whole world," Cunningham said. Cunningham and Saget approached Marilynn Anselmi, who owns the Red Oak Wood Shop, to help with their project. Anselmi, who has lived in Rocky Mount for 15 years, turns upcycled wood into artistic pieces of furniture. “Although that’s not what I normally do, I was so struck with the poignancy of their story, what their friend meant to them,” Anselmi said, noting the project has grown beyond a symbol of a place to sit. “I think we need those symbols, and I think we need the hope, and that’s part of the beauty of this project is there is a whole lot of hope along with that,” Anselmi asserted. “Certainly the memory and the honoring, but also the hope that we will be sitting on those benches again one day.”
Missing From The Bench is a memorial to all those who have lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic, but particularly residents of Nash and Edgecombe counties. And while it is a place for remembrance, Cunningham said the goal is to remind the loved ones left behind that they aren't alone. "Even the title of what we named the event, Missing From The Bench, we wanted people to be reassured that their loved ones, that although the are no longer with us and they are missing from the bench, we wanted them to be reassured that while you are not here on Earth you are in heaven.” Blackwell, who said she personally knows people who have died from COVID-19, appreciates the memorial in her cafe. "That's just another way that people can reach out and have a private moment of celebration and a private moment of remembrance," she said.
As communities console, funeral homes are left to deal with the logistics, and even they are becoming overwhelmed. “It’s changed everything, really,” said John Sossamon II. He is the owner and director at Sossamon Funeral Home in Vance County, where he was born and raised. Sossamon said the COVID-19 pandemic hit Vance County hard, but he didn’t quite realize the impact until he saw the numbers. “I knew that there were some deaths,” Sossamon said. “I knew some of our nursing facilities had got hit hard.”
Sossamon said his business has changed completely since the start of the pandemic--everything from the way services are held to the burial process. He explained that he’s needed to implement live streaming technology for extended family to attend services, and more people are opting to have their loved ones cremated instead of carrying out a traditional burial. “When your spouse or child can’t even go to the service when your father or husband or wife is buried because you have COVID, that’s a little bit difficult,” Sossamon said.
Sossamon owns a crematory in Vance County that services many of the surrounding areas. He said numbers have picked up and estimated hundreds of bodies have been cremated after dying from COVID-19. He's even had to perform services for families as far away as New York. And while he doesn’t necessarily know why people die, Sossamon can tell he’s seen an increase in deaths over the last few months, noting a shortage in body bags and personal protective equipment, like gloves and masks. “Last month we were extremely busy,” Sossamon said. “This time of year, normally it steps up a little bit anyway, for several reasons, the weather changing. They always say during holidays the death rate is higher, but we for sure can tell it.” He said supplies aren’t lasting as long at the crematory as they usually do. “The deaths, whether it be COVID or other, aren’t going to stop, so we just have to be prepared,” Sossamon said. “That’s why people call us. That’s what we do.”
SEE MORE: Families burdened with high costs of funerals in addition to grief
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"I wasn't expecting a child to die, and especially not my sister."
Throughout the pandemic, viewers have shared the stories of their loved ones who have died from COVID-19. Click on their photos to learn more about their lives:
Irene Wright, Vance County
Aurea "Yoshi" Soto Morales, Durham County
"He was just amazing, always helping people, always giving to people."
Mary Ward, Cumberland County
Alex Bernard, Wake County
"I love you to infinity and beyond. And that was the last thing he said to me."
Gayle Styons, Washington County
Judy Harward, Durham County
Jacob Deare, Cumberland County
We know thousands more have lost someone close to them. That’s why ABC11 is giving you the opportunity to share the story of your loved one in our Memorial Archive. North Carolinians who have lost a family member or friend to COVID-19 can submit a photo of their loved one, along with a video entry about their life. And we want to get to know the smiles behind the photos--what made them laugh? What were their best qualities? How will you remember them? Submit your stories here. The ABC11 I-Team will tell your stories over the next few months, creating a searchable database of the names behind the numbers and the hearts that will be missed, but never forgotten.