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Local memorial, events aim to honor those lost to COVID-19, comfort survivors

Local business owner Kevin Russell lost his good friend to COVID-19 in October. 

"I wish I would've spent more time with him. But he was busy, I'm busy. You kind of reflect back on things afterward," Russell said of his friend, Victor Ramos Jr. 

As a way to pay tribute to Ramos and others who died of the virus in the past year, Russell and his employees at American Fabrication in Bakersfield have built a remembrance wall that will bear their names.

The wall, which is made of three 5-by-10-feet powder-coated metal sections, will sit in front of the business on Gilmore Street, beneath an awning.

Russell said Friday that he and his employees have worked early mornings, late nights and on weekends to construct the wall, and already have collected about 40 names to go on it. Russell said he hopes to include many more and is accepting submissions of names.

As the worst of the winter COVID-19 surge fades away, ways to honor and mourn those lost to the virus are beginning to arise. In Kern County, the death toll from COVID-19 stands at just over 1,300 as of Friday. Given the extreme circumstances and unknowns that came with the coronavirus, and restrictions on daily life, which made it difficult to be with the dying or properly bury or memorialize them, there is a sense among many that the community is teeming with a subdued, collective grief.

"There's concern that people may be struggling to move on because they didn’t have a chance to grieve," said Jim La Mar, president of Greenlawn Funeral Homes and Cemeteries.

For some, it's the death of a loved one. But the deaths are just the tip of the iceberg, La Mar said.

"One thing about COVID is there’s a loss but it’s not necessarily a loss of life. It’s a loss of security, emotional security, a loss of peace and well-being, a loss of community, a loss of a business, a job, a livelihood or a home," he said.

To acknowledge the wide range of tragedy, hardship and sorrow over the past year, La Mar and Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh have planned an event to take place on May 6 at Greenlawn's Southwest Cemetery. Details are forthcoming but the event will feature a special ceremony where attendees can write a note with a loved one's name or a message about their experience during the pandemic that will be placed in a time capsule beneath a sun dial outside the cemetery chapel, La Mar said.

"It could be a relative that died in New York but you were unable to attend the funeral," La Mar said. "Anything and everything, if it gives someone peace going through the act of documenting it with others, that’s what the intent is."

There will also be music, speakers and resources on hand, such as information on grief counseling and details on a FEMA program that provides up to $9,000 in assistance to cover funeral expenses for someone who died of COVID-19. 

“Our community deeply feels the tragedy of the lives that have been lost to COVID-19. The memorial at Greenlawn provides a peaceful place of remembrance, and offers the flexibility of adding future enhancements and tributes," Goh said in an emailed statement about the event.

Several events have already been held locally to remember the victims of the virus and thank those who worked on the front lines.

Adventist Health Bakersfield hosted a communitywide prayer for hope and healing in mid-March in conjunction with the one-year anniversary of California’s stay-at-home order going into effect at the outset of the pandemic. And Bakersfield Heart Hospital also held a special memorial ceremony to thank front line health care workers and remember those who had been lost. Similar events have happened nationwide.

On the eve of their inauguration, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris held a vigil with 400 lanterns lining the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, representing the 400,000 lives lost at that time to the virus.

“To heal, we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember. But that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation,” said Biden, who has endured his own personal tragedies, including the loss of his first wife, a daughter and a son. 

Jessica Mosley, director of bereavement services at Bristol Hospice, formerly Optimal Hospice Care, said many COVID-19 deaths are similar to the sudden death of a loved one from a traffic accident or a heart attack.  

"It’s complicated grief. It’s just a harsher form," Mosley said. "There’s not only questions like, what could I have done, did I cause this, there's also the guilt, there’s anger."

Because the virus killed people of all ages, there are elderly dealing with the loss of a longtime spouse but also young spouses and children who are dealing with the sorrow and challenges of death.

Seeking help to process those emotions is important, Mosley said, likening grief to trauma. Most hospice care organizations offer free grief counseling to the community, as do many churches, she said.

"If we don’t deal with grief and loss in a healthy way — through counseling, finding support, taking medications — we suppress it. But it comes out because we mask it with whatever we can," she said.

It is why the process of mourning and remembering is so important. 

For Russell of American Fabrication, the remembrance wall he's building is part of that process. He is doing it not only to remember his own loss but to help others with theirs, too. He said he is heartened to see and hear the reactions of those who have reached out already to have a name placed on the wall.

"One note from one family is worth the whole wall," he said.