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Americans are looking for a way to memorialize their loved ones lose to COVID

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In many ways, life in this country is returning to something of a pre-COVID normal. But for millions of Americans who lost a loved one to the disease, life will never be the same. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, there's an effort underway to permanently memorialize the losses.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Janeth Nunez del Prado had the date marked on her calendar. Last May, her dad, Hugo, who lived in Bolivia, was supposed to visit her family in New Mexico.

JANETH NUNEZ DEL PRADO: (Crying) And we would look at the date all the time and be so excited.

KEITH: Tragically, he came down with COVID before he could make the trip.

NUNEZ DEL PRADO: He died just two weeks before he was supposed to come and get the vaccine and meet his grandkids for the first time. You know, we always thought we would have more time.

KEITH: Like so many people, she didn't get a chance to say goodbye to her dad. He spent his final days on a ventilator, alone in the hospital. There was no funeral.

NUNEZ DEL PRADO: It really interrupts the grieving process. You know, we have these rituals for a reason because they help us heal. And in the absence of that, it's really, really hard.

KEITH: Nunez del Prado, who is a social worker and trauma therapist, is now channeling her grief into an effort to establish a national COVID Memorial Day and to build physical memorials in cities all over the country.

NUNEZ DEL PRADO: And I know that a key to healing from trauma is to hold space, to feel what you need to feel, to know what you know and to do this in community.

KEITH: She's working with a group called Marked By COVID, with the goal of establishing the first Monday in March as a national day to honor those affected by COVID.

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KEITH: Last night, the group held a Zoom memorial service attended by hundreds of people who had lost someone to COVID. They lit candles and shared the names of their loved ones in the chat, writing notes about why they were so special, the emptiness left behind.

KRISTIN URQUIZA: This is our second annual COVID Memorial Day virtual vigil.

KEITH: Kristin Urquiza is co-founder of Marked By COVID and lost her dad to the virus in 2020. Urquiza argued this painful time needs to be remembered with a day on the calendar.

URQUIZA: We will be able to teach our children, our grandchildren and future generations about this moment in time, about our pain, about what happens in a public health crisis, about what is lost and who is lost.

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GREG STANTON: We haven't faced death at this magnitude in our country in a long period of time - trauma that's associated with that.

KEITH: Congressman Greg Stanton from Arizona is the lead sponsor of a House resolution expressing support for a COVID Memorial Day. So far, it has 67 co-sponsors - all Democrats. He's hoping to attract Republican colleagues too. The resolution hasn't gotten a hearing yet, but he is pushing hard because he says it's important that the pain of the pandemic is not swept under the rug in the pursuit of normalcy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STANTON: Those that are suffering from long-term COVID, those that have lost loved ones - we see you; we hear you; we will not forget you. We understand that your family - the loss of your family member is first and foremost a loss to you, but it is also part of a larger national tragedy.

KEITH: White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that although, in principle, the president supports memorializing lives lost to COVID, right now the focus remains on fighting the pandemic and securing funding from Congress to be prepared for whatever comes next. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.