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People want the pandemic and their loved ones who died of COVID to be memorialized

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Three years after COVID arrived in the U.S., a lot of people are relieved that some of its worst complications are in the rearview mirror. But others who've lost loved ones to the virus want the pandemic's toll to be recognized and remembered. Colorado Public Radio's John Daley reports.

JOHN DALEY, BYLINE: Jill Svenson lost her mother, Trude, two years ago, just weeks before the vaccine became available. She says her mom had...

JILL SVENSON: At least 10 years left in her, if it weren't for COVID.

DALEY: That loss was traumatic and something that the families of nearly 15,000 other Coloradans have had to go through.

SVENSON: I really think they have been forgotten. I feel like we've all moved on.

DALEY: And Svenson wishes there was some community memorials, some place, something to mark that gaping void the pandemic left for so many Coloradans.

SVENSON: It's just become a controversy. I think it would honor so many people and their families. I would love something like that.

DALEY: In Mary Eisenbeis' backyard across the city, she says she's felt the same thing. Earlier in the pandemic, she created her own memorial. She drew big numbers with a Sharpie on construction paper and then hung them up on her front fence in suburban Denver, as the U.S. death toll rose.

MARY EISENBEIS: I thought it would be a way for people to see. And so what I do is I posted the numbers every day.

DALEY: A neighbor told Eisenbeis she'd first lost her father, then her husband. She said she was moved by words Eisenbeis also hung up - their lives matter.

EISENBEIS: She said that was touching to her, that this mattered in the bigger picture and that other people cared.

DALEY: But a few months later, public debate over things like vaccines and masks was getting heated. Then came ferocious winds, ones that fueled Colorado's most destructive wildfire. Those winds also blew Eisenbeis' numbers...

EISENBEIS: Down the street and decided, at least for the time being, that we were going to stop.

DALEY: I meet Nicki Gonzales on the grounds of the state capitol, home to lots of more permanent historic monuments. Gonzales, a former state historian, teaches at Regis University. She says one was recently removed.

NICKI GONZALES: It used to be the pedestal that held the Civil War soldier.

DALEY: It's being replaced by a statue commemorating the Sand Creek massacre of Native Americans. There's a plaque with the Gettysburg Address, a replica of the Liberty Bell and a stone and concrete monument to those who died in...

GONZALES: World War I, II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and the Afghanistan War.

DALEY: Colorado also has memorials to civic leaders and sports heroes, victims of 9/11, fires, floods, mine disasters and mass shootings. But the COVID-19 pandemic...

GONZALES: Not that I know of.

DALEY: This despite the coronavirus pandemic claiming more Colorado lives than the flu pandemic a century ago. There's also no monument to that.

GONZALES: Well, I think we're still in the pandemic, and so it's hard to memorialize something that you're still in the midst of. And also I think it's been such a politically divisive pandemic, period. We haven't really grappled with it enough yet.

DALEY: Colorado does memorialize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At this year's MLK Day parade, 69-year-old Berda Steen wears a mask. She says she's lost someone to COVID.

BERDA STEEN: Yeah, I had an auntie on my daddy's side in Victoria, Texas - passed away in a nursing home.

DALEY: She likes the idea of honoring them.

STEEN: Yeah. We all - every state need to remember the people that passed away with the COVID. You know, they didn't know. A lot of people didn't know they had it.

DALEY: For now, individual gravestones are the only COVID memorials. Jill Svenson, who lost her mom two years ago, visits hers.

SVENSON: Trude Bershof, born March 28, 1940, and died December 2, 2020.

DALEY: Trude's bears a star of David and a rose. There were strict protocols in place when she was buried.

SVENSON: There's hardly anybody here to say goodbye to her.

DALEY: Svenson thinks many Colorado families also longed for a way to process their trauma.

SVENSON: I think just having something to represent all of them would be amazing, somewhere people could go and say, that was my uncle, my mom, my dad.

DALEY: She wonders if it's time Colorado not just counts the lives lost but fully remembers them, too. For NPR News, I'm John Daley in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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