Kenneth Alston Jr. sang a hymn for his grandmother Etta B. Alston.
Digna Lebron read a poem she wrote for her son, nicknamed “Tito.”
Maryann McKenzie talked about how COVID-19 took her “partner in crime” — her 33-year-old son Luke.
These were just a few of the people who joined THE CITY’s MISSING THEM Memorial Event last month to honor New Yorkers lost to the pandemic. They signed on to Zoom and told stories of their loved ones, lit candles, read poems, shared photos, laughed, cried and connected with hundreds of other folks there to listen.
The event marked an extension of THE CITY’s effort — also called MISSING THEM — to find every New Yorker who died due to COVID-19 and write an obituary for them. Nearly 26,000 New Yorkers have died due to the virus, with cases on the rise again since November.
This collaborative project — powered by volunteers, journalism schools, cultural institutions and New York residents — has verified nearly 2,000 names, or less than 8% of those who died in the city, and has produced nearly 300 obituaries.
Over the course of the three-day virtual event, held Dec. 11 to Dec. 13, we set out to provide folks with different spaces to connect with one another, to honor their loved ones and share the many griefs brought on by the pandemic.
The free virtual gatherings, organized with community partners, included eight sessions.
The response was overwhelming: About 750 people joined via Zoom — including members of 29 families who shared stories of the loved ones lost. Here are a few:
Simi Minhas remembered her husband, Randip S. Minhas:
Ana Christina Minerly remembered her sister Mary Margaret Minerly:
Bianca Beharry remembered her mother, Fareeda Beharry:
You can view all of the stories shared here.
Poets, Performances, Workshops and Roundtables
The main focus of the event was to bring families together to share stories of their loved ones and to provide a community to bear witness. We also wanted to offer a variety of ways for folks to participate — and sometimes just listen.
Our opening night — featuring poetry readings from Ellen Bass, Ross Gay and Aracelis Girmay — saw folks tune in from across the five boroughs, as well as California, Oregon, Wyoming, Vermont, North Carolina, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, Idaho, Canada, Thailand and more.
The readings were followed by the presentation of a poem written by New Yorkers from Brooklyn Public Library’s Poetry of Comfort class. The community poem was created based on dozens of obituaries written by THE CITY’s MISSING THEM writers.
We also held two theatrical performances over Zoom.
On the afternoon of Dec. 12, before families shared stories, actor and director Reza Salazar, along with six actors, performed a virtual play, titled “MISSING THEM,” inspired by more than a dozen interviews conducted by reporters who wrote obituaries for the digital memorial.
The next afternoon, the theater company What Will The Neighbors Say? performed “Our Grief Our Lives,” a play based on stories written by community members during an event workshop just 24 hours earlier.
The WWTNS? team had guided about 50 folks through a series of writing exercises to help them write their own stories. Folks were encouraged to write letters to their pre-pandemic “March self,” explore different objects around them, and make a list of what they did the day before.
Then, in the span of just about 24 hours, WWTNS? took that material, with permission, and turned it into a script that was presented by professional actors.
We also held a roundtable to discuss mental health, wellness and trauma during the pandemic with panelists Rev. Willard Ashley, psychologist Julie Colwell and meditation teacher Francesca Maximé. You can watch the discussion here and get more mental health resources here.
THE CITY’s MISSING THEM project is part of a growing movement to create memorials and hold vigils to remember those who died due to COVID-19 in New York.
We heard from artist Andrea Arroyo, who developed CoVIDA, as well as from representatives from the Morris Jumel Mansion, Care For The Homeless , Urban Pathways and Naming The Lost Memorials. You can see pictures of the work the group have done and the people they’ve brought together here.
Over the course of the weekend, more than 60 lives lost to COVID-19 were honored either by family members or through performances. Since the event, we’ve heard from dozens of people about how important it is to provide spaces like this for families to share and for people to listen.
It was only about 60, though, of the more than 25,000 we’ve lost so far. It’s our hope to continue this MISSING THEM series of storytelling events that bring families, friends, neighbors and New Yorkers together to share and celebrate the lives of all we’ve lost.
“This has been a very moving experience,” one attendee wrote in the Zoom chat. “I’d just like to express my thanks to everyone who has spoken so movingly about their loved ones. I lost a colleague ... in March and I still feel the loss. Being here with everyone has helped me with my own sense of loss. Goodnight to all.”
If you’d like to share a story of someone you’ve lost due to COVID-19 at the next MISSING THEM Memorial Event (timing still to be determined), fill out the questionnaire below, leave us a voicemail at (646) 494-1095 or text “remember” to 73224.
If you’d like to help out in some other way, email us at email@example.com.
Partners for THE CITY’s MISSING THEM Memorial Event included Brooklyn Public Library, What Will The Neighbors Say?, Reimagine End of Life, Interfaith Center of New York, Morris Jumel Mansion, Care For The Homeless , Urban Pathways, Naming The Lost Memorials and a number of independent actors and performers.