STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The night before he took the oath of office, Joe Biden held an event to mark 400,000 dead from the pandemic. That was in January, hardly more than a month ago. Yesterday, the president and vice president held an event to mark 500,000 dead.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They're never truly gone. They'll always be part of your heart. I know this as well, and it seems unbelievable, but I promise you, the day will come when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye. It will come, I promise you.
INSKEEP: NPR's Melissa Block interviewed some loved ones who remember the dead.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Sabila Khan has a ritual. Every morning before she even gets out of bed, she reaches for her phone and checks the latest COVID numbers.
SABILA KHAN: I feel like I have to somehow bear witness to the trauma that continues. By looking at the numbers every day, I'm sitting in the grief.
BLOCK: Sabila's father, Shafqat Khan, was an organizer in the Pakistani immigrant community in New Jersey. When he died of COVID last April, near the beginning of the pandemic, the virus had claimed the lives of some 32,000 Americans. Now with COVID deaths over half a million, Sabila fears the country has grown numb. But she says...
KHAN: We don't have that privilege of growing numb to the numbers. We're in it. I wish people would think about this every day.
BLOCK: Sabila created a support group on Facebook for family and friends of those lost to COVID. What began with a few members has ballooned to more than 7,000. One of them is Josh Hollifield. His father, Alan, a maintenance mechanic, was 60 when he died in North Carolina just after Thanksgiving. Since then, Josh has watched the COVID numbers grow exponentially.
JOSH HOLLIFIELD: It's almost the population of Wyoming that we've lost, so we've almost lost a state's worth of people.
BLOCK: It's troubling, he says, that people can go about their lives and feel no connection to these deaths.
HOLLIFIELD: The larger the numbers are, the harder it is to feel the empathy anymore. And I don't know how we make that empathy personal again because now - our brains are not good with big numbers.
BLOCK: The sheer weight of those numbers can tend to dwarf the individual stories behind each person who died. What does it mean when you're just one of half a million?
CAROL MCINTYRE: I try not to think of my husband as a number because, to me, he's not a number. I mean, I'm sure he is in that count, but I just refuse to attach him to a number.
BLOCK: Carol McIntyre's husband, James, a retired county bus driver in Pensacola, Fla., died last July at age 70. They'd been married for 36 years. Now she wonders how many more people have to die.
MCINTYRE: It's like it just won't stop growing. And I know that there is somebody every minute, every second, every hour that's going through what I'm going through.
JENNIFER SPITZER: It's devastating, this sort of accumulation of lives and the way we keep waking up to another 100,000 people lost.
BLOCK: That's Jennifer Spitzer of Ithaca, N.Y., who gets angry every time a new threshold is reached. Her mother, Abby Spitzer, a psychotherapist, died last May at 78.
SPITZER: One of the fears that a lot of us have is that as that number climbs, we all just become statistics. There's almost a callousness to the individuality of those losses.
BLOCK: What's worse, Jennifer says, is realizing how many people doubt that COVID even exists, who think it's all a hoax or a conspiracy. She calls it a brutal form of gaslighting.
SPITZER: Shortly after my mother died, I remember walking down the street right by my house in a rather progressive upstate college town and a man driving up to me and rolling down his window and coughing at me, you know, in a kind of jeering cough to mock me for wearing a mask, it was really a kind of horrific enactment of how many people don't take this virus seriously.
BLOCK: Last fall, when Carmen Gardner-Jackson's mother, Diane Butler, went to the hospital with COVID, her family kept their hopes up.
CARMEN GARDNER-JACKSON: You've seen on television that, hey, the president of the United States took that drug and he got better. So my mom's going to get that drug and she's going to be better. But that wasn't the case for us.
BLOCK: Butler died in Milwaukee at age 66. She was newly retired, had gone to college and got her associate degree when she was 59. Sometimes, Carmen will watch the rising death toll scroll by at the bottom of her TV screen.
GARDNER-JACKSON: Just always remembering that Ma is one of those numbers. That's my mom. That's my mother, that's the woman that gave me my name. She's one of those numbers.
BLOCK: Now that there are vaccines and the death rate is dropping, a new loss to COVID can feel doubly cruel.
LORI BARON: We're so close to the finish line. It seems like to get so far into this and then to lose him here at this point, I think it always feels unfair, but it feels especially hard.
BLOCK: Lori Baron lost her brother Danny Volce to COVID just this month. He was 52, a drummer, always joking.
BARON: I was looking at the number of deaths in the United States, and I just stare at that, that number. And I think of if Danny was still here, that number would look different, just by one, but it would look different.
BLOCK: I look at that last digit, Lori says, and I think that's him. Melissa Block, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.