In Alaska, 444 people have died after contracting COVID-19. We know precious few of their stories.
Of hundreds of Alaskans who’ve died with COVID-19, the fact was acknowledged in only a handful of published obituaries. A sprinkling of online memorials and fundraisers fill out the details of a few more.
Recent deaths hint at the enormity of the losses: A respected airline pilot with two children. A U.S. Marine with a toddler son. A 36-year-old dad and restaurant employee.
Those are the exceptions. By and large, the grief — and the stories — of Alaskans who died in the unfolding wave of the coronavirus pandemic have remained private.
The result is faceless human toll growing by the day.
How can hundreds of Alaskans die and we know so little about who they are?
“I have wondered the same thing,” said Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer.
In the earlier stages of the pandemic, people came forward with stories about their loved ones’ illnesses and death.
People like Scott Wells, whose wife, Amanda Bouffioux, died of COVID-19 one year ago. At the time, Wells said, he was willing to share about the death of the 44-year-old wife and mother because he wanted Alaskans to know how lethal the virus could be.
But as almost every aspect of the pandemic — from masking to vaccination to even the threat posed by the virus itself — has become the center of an ugly political debate, that’s changed.
“I keep thinking about the similarities between the opioid epidemic,” said Zink. “The shame and the stigma that can sometimes come with COVID. And the politicization of it.”
Now, with unvaccinated people making up the overwhelming majority of recent COVID-19 deaths in Alaska, there’s a sense among some family members that going public about a loved one’s illness and death means inviting the judgments of strangers.
“I think people want to grieve and process their own loss without judgment,” Zink said.
Even before vaccines were available, families that chose to share publicly about their loved one’s loss to coronavirus faced judgment.
Michi Shinohara’s mother, Rosemary Shinohara, a retired Anchorage Daily News reporter, died in December of COVID-19.
Shinohara tweeted a raw account of her time at her dying mother’s bedside. An adaptation of the thread was published in the Daily News.
At the time, Shinohara, a physician in Seattle, worried that people might question whether her mom and dad had been sufficiently cautious. She wondered if her mother’s death might be discounted because she was older, or because she had other health issues.
People just want to believe it won’t happen to them, or if they do, that everyone will be fine, Shinohara said.
“Admitting that’s not true lets in the hideous fear of this thing that’s looming,” she wrote.
‘Very simple and private’
Funeral directors and cemetery workers are encountering families dealing with the deaths of their loved ones to COVID-19. Many are opting for direct cremation and no immediate service, said Mindy Gustin, a licensed funeral director for Legacy Heritage Chapel at Angelus Cemetery in Anchorage.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of families going ‘OK, we are going to keep our arrangements very simple and very private,’ ” said Gustin. Causes of death are gradually disappearing from obituaries in general, Gustin said.
“In the pandemic we are grieving in a much more isolated way,” she said.
The Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery downtown has been busy with burials in August and September. Families don’t often volunteer the cause of their loved ones’ deaths, but memorial park director Rob Jones sometimes hears which are due to COVID-19.
“I’ve noticed the obits are not mentioning it nearly to the degree that it is actually causing the death,” Jones said.
Tethering a loved one’s death to the coronavirus pandemic can make it feel like it subsumes the person’s life story and accomplishments, Zink said.
“There’s a desire to not have someone’s death to be boiled down to a virus that has become so political,” she said. “They want the obit to be about the life of that person, and what that looked like.”
Kenneth Doka studies grief, especially what he calls “disenfranchised grief.”
Disenfranchised grief is the kind that is not openly acknowledged, validated by society or mourned publicly, says Doka, a professor emeritus at the College of New Rochelle in New York and vice president of the Hospice Foundation of America,
People who have lost loved ones to suicide or drug overdose are familiar with their loved ones’ deaths being viewed as somehow the result of perceived moral failings.
You see it sometimes in deaths from lung cancer, Doka said.
“The first question is, did they smoke?” he said. “As if their smoking makes them somehow less deserving of sympathy.”
At first, people who died with the coronavirus did not seem to be subjected to such disenfranchisement. Now, with vaccines widely available and most deaths among unvaccinated people, “there may be a sense that this was preventable,” he said. “And that there’s a stigma associated with it.”
Grief that remains unspoken, unacknowledged or unexplored festers.
“You can’t explore your own questions,” Doka said. “You can’t really process your grief as well.”
What are we missing?
What do we lose by not knowing the stories of those who have died?
Every one of us has been through the trauma of a global pandemic in the last year and a half, Zink said. But we’ve also experienced COVID-19 so differently: from a mild spell of illness to the economic loss of a business to the death of a mother, father, husband or wife. She thinks polarization — and not knowing one another’s stories — has pushed us further apart.
“We’ve lost a lot of the humanity of this response,” Zink said. Sharing stories about all the losses Alaskans have experienced could help, she thinks.
Gustin, the funeral director, says it’s never her role to judge. It’s to help families memorialize their loved ones as they wish to — publicly or privately, with or without acknowledgement of why the person died.
She’s busy right now. The bodies of three people who died with COVID-19 arrived at her funeral home just last weekend.