ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Each day, the numbers come – how many people have tested positive for COVID-19, how many have died.
We hit grim milestones with the latter figures, losses of life measured out by the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, passing other grim milestones.
The anonymity of numbers distances us from the reality and the grief behind each one. Numbers become numbing. It becomes easy to forget that each number represents a person, easy to compartmentalize the devastation to other families, easy to make excuses for not wearing a mask, not staying home, not caring.
But the grief is there.
My colleagues and I strive to put names and faces on those lost to COVID-19 and their families who might otherwise grieve in isolation. My May 23 column, for example, introduced you to the Plath family, shattered by the virus-related deaths of a father and son and the infection of six other relatives.
The column inspired a reader in Las Cruces to write about the importance of humanizing the numbers and helping those who grieve realize they are not alone.
“You have put faces to the numbing statistics of this virulent illness – 100,000 deaths forecast by June,” Dorothy Taylor wrote. (We actually passed that jarring milestone Wednesday.) “Those numbers are difficult to comprehend in total and in the fatigue of so much death. It’s easier for some to deny the numbers (overly inflated!) or even reject them outright (the pandemic is faked!).”
Putting faces to the numbers, she said, transforms the loss of “other” into “us.”
And to help “us” know we are not alone, she suggested adopting the simple symbol of a yellow heart – one to acknowledge each death, each heart broken, each golden life gone – placed in a prominent spot such as a front window.
It’s an idea taking off in England, where a man named David Gompertz wanted some tangible way to note that his wife, Sheila, was more than a COVID-19 statistic.
Gompertz, in an interview with the BBC, said he thought about tying a yellow ribbon around a tree outside his home to honor his wife, who died in early May.
“I thought it would be a good idea if people who were grieving could signal that by doing something like a yellow ribbon,” he said.
But granddaughters Hannah and Becky Gompertz told him ribbons might be hard to come by under shutdown restrictions. Instead, they suggested coloring a yellow heart on paper and posting that in a front window.
The granddaughters also set up a Facebook page called “Yellow Hearts to Remember – Covid 19” to explain the story behind the hearts.
The idea took off.
Soon, yellow hearts were appearing in windows. People flocked by the hundreds to the Facebook page to share photos of their own yellow hearts and to share their pain, their feeling of isolation and their stories of the people they lost to the virus.
Since the page went up May 10, more than 5,570 have become members.
“We hit a nerve,” David Gompertz told the BBC. “This is what people are looking for. It’s been something where the general public can find a home in their grieving.”
The yellow hearts are like the gold stars of families who commemorate the loss a loved one in the U.S. military killed in the line of duty. They are what pink ribbons are to those touched by breast cancer, what the color orange is to those fighting for a cease-fire in gun violence.
A yellow heart, the color of sunshine, “makes the numbers feel a lot more real, because when they’re just a statistic it can just pass straight over your head,” granddaughter Becky Gompertz told the BBC. “And it’s good people are able to grieve together on this page.”
Back in Las Cruces, Dorothy Taylor said she wondered whether the yellow hearts project could also work here.
“If we in the U.S. could take up such a simple yet visible mark of personal loss, it would help keep faces attached to the counts to remind us of our collective humanity and responsibility during this challenge,” she wrote.
Well, why not?
It is never easy to grieve the loss of someone we held dear, but it seems a far harder ordeal in these days of social distancing when funerals and support groups are relegated to online Zoom sessions, when simple acts of bringing over a casserole or offering a hug break the safety of our isolation.
A symbol like a yellow heart, simple and poignant, reminds us of the hearts that no longer beat because of the ravages of a virus, of the hearts broken as a result and that we are all more than numbers.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, email@example.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.