‘One million empty chairs’: The US families torn apart by COVID

As nation hits sombre mark of one million coronavirus deaths, families remember loved ones lost during the pandemic.

Woman crying over coffin
US President Joe Biden says the sombre milestone means there are 'one million empty chairs around the family dinner table' [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Washington, DC – The United States has become the first country in the world to surpass one million deaths from COVID-19.

The nation hit the tragic mark on Tuesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, renewing a deep sense of grief felt by countless families that have lost loved ones during the pandemic.

Last week, President Joe Biden said the sombre milestone meant there are “one million empty chairs around the family dinner table”, while urging Americans to continue to exercise caution to prevent the virus from spreading. “This pandemic isn’t over,” he said.

Here, Al Jazeera shares the stories of some of the one million Americans who died due to the coronavirus, and the tremendous loss felt by their families and friends.

Tom Wilson, 69, Avondale, Arizona

Maureen Wilson lost her husband of 37 years, Tom, on January 16, 2021.

She says Tom, who had Parkinson’s disease and dementia, most likely contracted COVID-19 during a visit to the doctor’s office for a flu shot. He spent eight days in hospital but then his family decided to take him home because he did not want to be ventilated.

He died of a heart attack at home, not long after being discharged from hospital, but was only buried in March 2022, after the family could hold a proper funeral, Maureen says.

Tom Wilson
Tom Wilson most likely contracted COVID-19 during a visit to a doctor’s office, his wife says [Courtesy Maureen Wilson]

“I feel terrible – angry, so angry,” she told Al Jazeera of the experience of having a loved one in hospital but not being able to see them.

Maureen says she looks back fondly on her life with her husband, whom she described as a romantic who frequently wrote her cards and love letters. She recently went through some of their old correspondence.

She says he was her best friend and soulmate.

“I never thought I’d be loved the way Tom Wilson loved me – completely. No matter what I did or said or looked like, he loved me,” Maureen wrote in a message on a Facebook grief support group.

Peggy Rampersad, 89, Fredericksburg, Virginia

Peggy Rampersad died on January 20, 2022, a week after her 89th birthday. Her family says the matriarch, who was fully vaccinated but had years earlier developed kidney disease and had congestive heart failure, caught COVID-19 from her caregiver.

Born and raised in the small Virginia town of Fredericksburg, Peggy reinvented herself several times throughout her life, her daughter Gita Rampersad recalls.

Peggy Rampersad
Peggy Rampersad’s daughter says her mother was ‘kind, graceful and sophisticated’ [Photo courtesy of Gita Rampersad]

At age 20, despite losing her own mother, Peggy followed her dream to study art at the renowned Art Institute of Chicago. Once in the big city, she met the love of her life, whom she was married to for 40 years. She later went from a promising artist to an accomplished intellectual, receiving a PhD from the University of Chicago.

“She was the type of person who believed in reinvention,” Gita, who is an only child, told Al Jazeera. “I saw my mother reinvent herself on multiple occasions throughout my lifetime.”

Over the past 25 years, Gita says she became “best friends” with her mother. The two spoke every day and travelled together often. “We enjoyed each other’s company,” she says.

She describes her mother as being “confident, opinionated but fair”, as well as “kind, graceful and sophisticated”.

“She was a remarkable woman,” Gita says.

Viola Faria, 76, Brooklyn, New York

Viola Faria died on December 29, 2021, in St Louis, Missouri, at age 76.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, she worked for an oil company before starting her own home cleaning business. But at age 40, she quit her job to become the full-time caregiver for her then-five-year-old daughter, Christina, who has cerebral palsy.

“She was my full-time mom. She did all the things regular moms do, and in many ways, I had an idyllic childhood,” Christina, now 36, told Al Jazeera. “But along with that she also did my therapies every day, my breathing treatments, and basically [was] my arms and legs.”

For several years, the two lived in Hawaii, where Viola became an advocate for people with disabilities.

Christina and Viola
Viola Faria quit her full-time job at age 40 to care for her daughter, Christina, who has physical disabilities [Courtesy Christina Faria]

“She was very dedicated,” says Christina, recalling how her mother fought for her to be allowed to attend a private school in Hawaii and took part in marches in Washington and New York.

When Christina graduated from high school, it became apparent that she would still need full-time care, and the two decided to continue to live together. They moved to St Louis, Missouri, in 1998.

Although she was fully vaccinated, Viola caught COVID-19 over Christmas last year. Her condition began deteriorating, and she was rushed to hospital, which was short-staffed.

She was moved to the intensive care unit not long after, but her condition continued to worsen.

Viola is survived by her daughter, Christina, and her older brother, Robert.



John Ripley, 58, Boise, Idaho

John “Scott” Ripley, a software engineer from Boise, Idaho, died on February 18, 2022, less than a month after testing positive for COVID-19. He was 58.

His daughter Suzanne Ripley says she was unable to see him in hospital due to pandemic protocols. She only got to see him on the day he died after getting a phone call from the hospital telling her that her father was dying. He was already intubated.

She says she held his hand as his heart stopped. She begged him to wait for her sister who was 30 minutes away, but he did not make it.

“My dad spent his whole life making sure I never felt alone and he was always there for me – and when it mattered it felt like I couldn’t be there for him,” Ripley told Al Jazeera.

“This disease, it doesn’t just wreck your body, it destroys families’ ability to properly say goodbye to their loved ones in a way that feels like a right,” she says.

Ripley says her father was extremely intelligent and would build computer software “for fun”. She says he was gentle and kind, and loved comedy and Star Trek movies. He also loved spending time with his dog, named Jack.

He leaves behind a wife, two daughters, and a stepson, as well as his father, sisters and three grandchildren.

Source: Al Jazeera