Missing Them

Season 3, Episode 5

A special episode, created in partnership with Queens Memory and the online newspaper The CITY, on grief and mourning during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how we can move forward as a community.

Want to learn more about the topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links:

Episode Transcript

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Hi there — we just wanted to let you know that this episode is about grief and death during the pandemic. And, we’re talking about it because we believe archiving people’s stories at the library is important, but if listening to people’s stories of death is hitting too close to home right now, we’ll be back in two weeks with a lighter story.


Kevin Zambrano Almost everyone in my family works as a maintenance worker, you know, in all of these huge office buildings. And my grandmother was the first one to get sick. She was the first one to get a fever and a headache, and we did later learn that someone at her job had received a diagnosis of COVID-19 right around the same time she was working. Once my grandmother got sick, it was just a matter of time before the people who lived in the apartment with her got sick. And then, of course, my grandfather got sick.

Adwoa Adusei This is Kevin Zambrano, a student at NYU. He was born and raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and he recorded his oral history with Brooklyn Public Library in May in order to remember his grandfather, who died of COVID-19 at a Brooklyn Hospital.

Kevin Zambrano His name was Fortunato Martinez. He was a maintenance worker for the majority of his live. Prior to, he was a truck driver in Mexico and had decided to come to the US to have a better life for his kids. He was in many ways like a dad, just because I had very few interactions with my own dad. I was his grandson, but I would catch it in his slips of like, when he would talk to me, and when my grandmother would talk to me, they would say the Spanish word for son, which is mi hijo, and it was in those moments I would realize that our bond was paternal.


Kevin Zambrano I can’t grieve in any sort of normal way by going to visit family. Just the other day, I went to go pick up his death certificate, and on the death certificate, there’s a box that says "informant" and in that box was my name. And I just thought about that word, I thought about what it meant to be an informant of death, and to be surrounded by it, but not understand it, and the thought of what it meant to work cleaning empty office buildings for people who could work at home and could be at home with their families. But, meanwhile my family was being sent out every night to go clean those buildings and disinfect them. So, it was a very frustrating moment, and one of anger, because my family didn't have the privilege to work from home.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Today on Borrowed, we’re bringing you a special episode on grief during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how we can move forward as a community.

Adwoa Adusei This episode is created in partnership with Queens Memory and the online newspaper The CITY. I’m Adwoa Adusei.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. We’re calling this episode: Missing Them.


Krissa Corbett Cavouras One way New Yorkers have been documenting their grief is in local community archiving projects. At the start of the pandemic, back in April, our colleagues at Queens Memory, the ongoing community archiving program supported by Queens Public Library and Queens College, CUNY, put out a call for stories relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. What resulted was an influx of written testimonies, pictures, and voice recordings from Queens residents who wanted to document their experience in a borough that was then the epicenter of the evolving COVID-19 crisis.

Catherine LaSota Being here in Queens and having communications with people in other parts of the country, when it was really hitting us here, being like, we all know people personally who have died and you don't, and that feels different. 

Adwoa Adusei Catherine LaSota is a resident of Long Island City in Queens. She’s a writer and works at Columbia University, and back in March, she and her family got sick with COVID. She recorded her oral history with Queens Memory, and talked about what it felt like to be in Queens during the peak of New York City’s COVID surge.

Catherine LaSota
(Queens Memory)

Catherine LaSota But yeah, actually I remember when we first knew somebody who died, that was kind of a turning point. You know that you're going to know somebody who's going to die. Like, you can feel it coming. 

Lydia Howrilka I know seven people personally, who've died from COVID. Seven people who were former teachers, colleagues. One of them was a student who passed away, unfortunately. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Lydia Howrilka lives in Floral Park, Queens. She’s a public school teacher in Brooklyn, and she’s also a union rep for the United Federation of Teachers.

Lydia Howrilka As a teacher, like, we were pushing our union to really enforce for the DOE that schools needed to be closed. Because as teachers, we see kids riding the subway and buses, they're getting contact with people and so they were picking up the virus in public transit, passing on to their parents,  many of whom are first responders, essential workers. And then a lot of teachers were getting sick. It's estimated that roughly 80 teachers in the public school system have passed. I remember, in March and April, when everybody was getting sick, like, it truly felt that like three quarters of the city had the disease at one point. Because like everybody who lived in the city knew someone who had lost somebody or who was sick or they knew or they themselves were sick. So, it really just felt like this all encompassing thing.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Across the city, this pandemic has affected everyone, in different ways. We have all been impacted by it.

Adwoa Adusei Shortly after Queens Memory started up their project, we at Brooklyn Public Library began to collect COVID-19 stories, too. Over the past eight months, a team of a dozen volunteers recorded over 40 oral history interviews. It was clear that Brooklyn wanted to talk, too, and many came to us in order to remember loved ones lost to COVID-19.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras One of those Brooklynites was Vanessa Emile, a high school teacher who lives in Canarsie. Her family was particularly devastated. In the space of one month, she lost four of her family members. During her recording, Vanessa recited the names of those family members, so that they would not be forgotten.

Vanessa Emile My grandmother’s name is Mary Anne Tabernacle Emile, and she was 95 years old. My uncle is Roger Emile and he was 71 years old, I believe. My father is Jean Yves Emile and he was 69, and my aunt is Marie Emile, and I believe she was 66. For my father, I can honestly say that this was very unexpected, but even through it all he was very strong through it. And I think the hardest part about all of this is that he was unable to be with his family, or to see his family, see his kids, be with his wife. It was the first time, losing someone so close to us. Not just once, but four times, all at once, hich is a lot. It just really shows us how time is not given to us, and the time that you spend with people is so important and valuable. Because, even now, I just think about the times I did have with my father, my aunt, my uncle, my grandma. I’m just thinking about how could I have maybe spent more time with them, or have done something differently with them.

Adwoa Adusei It’s hard to imagine how a person can recover from that kind of loss and trauma. This interview was recorded at the end of August, when New York City had a bit of a reprieve. People started to gather again, and businesses and restaurants were opening up. Vanessa spoke about the strangeness of that moment.

Vanessa Emile
(Brooklyn Public Library)

Vanessa Emile In the beginning, like in June and July, when things started opening up, it was hard to step out. And it was this fear and paranoia of just taking off your clothes by the door and making sure you wash it right away. And now we’re at a point where people are just walking freely, and there’s more understanding around how the virus is spread. And then there are times were I’m looking at people and I’m just like, how could everybody be so free and happy when we just experienced this crazy pandemic? But then I also remember not everybody experienced it the same way.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In a city that has collectively experienced over 24,000 deaths to COVID-19, as of the end of November — that number maybe feels distant for those who haven’t lost someone close to them. During this pandemic, our city has come face to face with inequities in access to housing and health care. Even sitting with that knowledge can be a grief of its own.

Adwoa Adusei That’s something Esra Dayani talked about in her oral history interview. Esra is an actress and mother in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Esra Dayani There’s countless levels of grief. There’s grief about our children and what they’re dealing with, there’s grief about we as adults and parents and what we’re dealing with. Then there’s the grief about what our fellow community members are dealing with that can’t pay for their medicine or can’t leave the house. There’s some days, there's been a couple days that I’ve realized that just standing in one place, doing nothing, takes so much energy.

Adam Whittaker At some point there needs to be some kind of reckoning in the whole city, of the loss.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Adam Whittaker is another Park Slope resident, and father of a 9-year-old son.


Adam Whittaker I remember after 9/11 ,it didn’t really feel like the city came to grips until a year later when they read everybody’s name. And that felt, like, cathartic, and that, you know, the city could move on.

Adwoa Adusei One of the hardest parts of grieving during the pandemic is that the virus itself is changing the way we mourn. Across cultures, gathering with friends and family is an important part of the grieving process.

Bonnie Dixon It's it's been very unfortunate, naturally, to see these families who are so isolated. Because I think so much of our grieving and our healing and our coping mechanisms are in the human touch.

Adwoa Adusei That’s Bonnie Dixon, the president of Maple Grove cemetery, in Queens. Meral Agish interviewed her for this episode, and asked Bonnie about how families have been grieving during COVID-19.

A Marker in Maple Grove Cemetery, in Queens. The inscription reads: "In 1918-1919, a deadly influenza circled the world, killing many millions of people. The dangerous nature of this 'Spanish Influenza' virus  was never fully understood by public health officials. The worst of the epidemic  passed through New York City in the autumn of 1918. The area near this stone served  as an unmarked, common grave for scores of victims of influenza​​​ and related diseases--many in their prime years. This virus took a powerful toll in our community." (Meral Agish, Queens Memory)

Bonnie Dixon I really felt for the families, because we were only allowing a very limited number to even come to the grave. And that's the real time of saying goodbye and kind of settling a little bit, or kind of closure. And a lot of people were not able to participate in that closure. We were pushed for getting people buried or interred as fast as we could. And that's something that we usually sit down and for at least an hour, you know, chat with the people and get a feeling for where they are and what they want. And, that wasn't, we couldn't do that. We didn't have the time to do that. People were anxious to get in. I don't know how we're going to recover from that. But I think, as you say, walking among the people and walking in the cemetery gives you a sense of not being alone because there are so many who suffered the same consequences. 

Kay Turner Generally, when someone would die, there would be a wake, and the wake would have food, the body would be laid out.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s Kay Turner, a folklorist and performer in Brooklyn. Kay has studied traditional practices of mourning as a folklorist, and in early June, she was part of a program put on by the Brooklyn Arts Council and the Guyanese Cultural Association called “In Times Like These.” The program highlighted the changing mourning practices in Brooklyn’s Guyanese community, and when we interviewed her for this podcast, she described the way a traditional Guyanese funeral might unfold.

Kay Turner Stories would be told about the person. Then, there would be a nine night's celebration after the death, and that would be another opportunity for people to gather. And sometimes there would be music and songs sung.

Adwoa Adusei Across Caribbean cultures, big, energetic funerals are common, with drumming, dancing and food. It’s a time for neighbors, family and friends to gather and celebrate a life. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But, starting in late March, all non-essential gatherings were banned in New York state, in order to curb the spread of the virus. Now that restrictions have eased, funerals are happening again, but in much smaller numbers.

Kay Turner So, those celebrations and mourning periods were cut short. And a lot of people, I think, continue to suffer with this, that the the normal vehicles of mourning are, like sitting Shiva for the Jewish community, people can't come into a home and sit Shiva for seven days when someone has died.

Adwoa Adusei Two cultural communities with grieving practices that rely on large gatherings of people, Jewish and Caribbean cultures, both of those communities exist in large numbers in Central Brooklyn, which is a neighborhood particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Because so many of our traditions around mourning have been halted, more and more New Yorkers are looking for ways to memorialize loved ones in a safe way that was still emotionally impactful. Kay Turner was one of those people.

Kay Turner After the pandemic started to run up tremendous amounts of deaths in April, a number of activists and artists and folklorists in New York City got concerned because the administration, the Trump administration, didn't seem to be creating any national grieving outlet of any kind. And even as we worked our way toward Memorial Day, there was nothing forthcoming.

Adwoa Adusei The group that Kay helped form is called Naming The Lost Memorials. Their original goal was to create a community memorial in each of the five boroughs, where people could go to remember loved ones lost to COVID-19. In Brooklyn, the first memorial went up around Memorial Day in May, on the fence outside the Green-Wood Cemetery. Krissa, you live near there, right?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, I do. And I would go to Green-Wood all the time in May and June, because it’s a place you can walk and get some solace. And I remember seeing these paper templates that had been written on and decorated, sometimes with photographs, and it really stood out to me that this was so immediate, that this grief was really fresh. These were people in my own neighborhood who had probably lost someone in the past few weeks.

Adwoa Adusei The memorials that went up in May were really popular. So the group decided to make monthly memorials to recognize different communities that had experienced loss from COVID-19. 

Kay Turner We need to encourage these kinds of common memorials that people can make on their own, perhaps annually. This is a part of the way that the people can take control of what they want to memorialize, what they feel is worthy, what they need to take account of.


Krissa Corbett Cavouras Naming the Lost Memorials has since put up displays at Madison Square Park for the march to fund undocumented workers, at nursing homes in Staten Island and in Washington Heights, at an MTA bus depot in Brooklyn, and there are more popping up across the city and the country. We’ll put a link to the Naming the Lost Memorials Facebook page, where you can see pictures of recent memorials. 

Adwoa Adusei Many of us are grappling with this question, about how to have a reckoning of loss in this city, how to move on from this crisis and honor those that have been lost to a deadly virus.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras The online newspaper The CITY is trying to figure out, too. In May, they launched an ambitious project to record obituaries for every New Yorker who died from COVID-19. They called their project, “Missing Them,” and it’s an online space to remember and honor every person who died, who they were and what they meant to the city. 

Adwoa Adusei Of the nearly 25,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in New York City, the Missing Them project has collected nearly 2,000 names and written nearly 200 obituaries, and they’re aiming to capture all of them, because public memorials — obituaries like the ones you might see in The New York Times or The Washington Post -- are only capturing a select group of people. Usually younger, more white, and wealthier. The CITY is trying to capture and memorialize everyone else.

Juan Vicente Valerio of the Hospital de Bicicletas in Jackson Heights. This photo was submitted to Queens Memory by Nitin Mukul, who wrote: "One day maybe 10 years back I found this bike shop when I got a flat coming back from Flushing Meadows Park. In fact there are a few around there but this was the one I stumbled on. It became a hidden treasure to a gringo like me. These guys are no nonsense, do most jobs on the sidewalk, and for most part do it as soon as you get there. They got me from a flat tire to back on the road in a few minutes, like a pit stop for the delivery set, which represent a significant chunk of their clients. The professionalism, lack of any pretension and absurdly reasonable rates felt like they were doing me a solid anytime I went, despite not being an insider at all. The few friends I brought there were grateful also. I found out a few days ago that one of the mechanics, Juan Valerio, passed away due to Coronavirus. According to this old article he was a former mechanic for the Mexican Olympic cycling team. This felt like a personal loss not only because it’s a great bike shop but even more because it really represents the ethos of Jackson Heights and so many here at the epicenter who are keeping things going. I hope the shop is still around once the pandemic is behind us."

Caitlin Antonios What's special about this project is it doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what your job was. It doesn't matter if you had a job. It doesn't matter where you lived. It mattered that you existed.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Caitlin Antonios is a reporter who worked at The CITY over the summer, where she was one of a team of dozens who called families and friends and wrote down the lives of those lost to COVID-19.

Caitlin Antonios You know, everyone that exists has a story to tell and should be valued and should be remembered and should be thought of, especially in a pandemic, which is all about numbers. And that's all people are quoting and saying and watching. They're not numbers. They're people. I lived very close to a hospital throughout all of April, and I was constantly hearing the sirens and my heart was just breaking. And this felt like a way to make sure that nobody was forgotten, make sure these stories were told. Every person that I was talking to, in the midst of their own grief, was thinking about everyone else's grief. And they kept saying things like, thank you so much for doing this for my loved one, you know, I'm thinking of everyone else's loved ones who had to go through this as well. And that sort of empathy, I think, is just really special to the feeling of community that's in New York.

Adwoa Adusei To search for names and stories of loved ones, or to add a story of your loved one who died from COVID-19, visit TheCITY [dot] nyc [slash] missing [dash] them. You can also call (646) 494-1095 or text “remember” to 73224.


Adwoa Adusei If you want to make a memorial in your neighborhood, visit namingthelost [dot] com [slash] memorials to find templates and instructions. We’ll also put a link to that in our show notes.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras If you live in Queens, share your story with Queens Memory by visiting queensmemory [dot] org, or call (855) QNS-LOVE, that’s (855) 767-5683.

Adwoa Adusei If you’re a Brooklynite, you can record your oral history about COVID-19 and archive it in our ongoing oral history project, Our Streets, Our Stories. Visit BKLYN Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts [slash] oral [dash] histories for more information. You can also call (917) 426-1271.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, The CITY is putting on a virtual event to bring New Yorkers together to remember and honor those lost to COVID-19. Starting on Friday, December 11 and running until December 13, you can log on and listen to the stories of lives lost during this pandemic. Families and friends of loved ones who have passed are encouraged to share memories, and community partners like Brooklyn Public Library will be sharing poetry, writing workshops, and theater performances, all designed to honor our lost loved ones. You can register for the free events and read more about the schedule of events at reimagine [dot] org [slash] missing them.

Adwoa Adusei We’re going to have all of those resource links on our website.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, until next time, we’ll be listening for your stories.