Releasing the grief: Relatives, friends of those lost to COVID gather to heal at a memorial ceremony at Three Sisters Sanctuary

  • COVID-19 victims’ survivors, Kristin Urquiza, left, of San Francisco, Calif., consoles Jennifer Ritz Sullivan of Goshen as Tara Krebbs, of Phoenix, Ariz., right, looks on as Ritz Sullivan speaks during a COVID memorial event at Three Sisters Sanctuary in Goshen on Saturday, September 10, 2022. Fifty names of people who died due to COVID-19 were read during the ceremony. Photo by Christopher Evans Christopher Evans—

  • Tara Krebbs, left, of Phoenix, Ariz., places a consoling hand on the shoulder of Kristin Urquiza, of San Francisco, Calif., during a COVID memorial event at Three Sisters Sanctuary in Goshen on Saturday, September 10, 2022. Fifty names of people who died due to COVID-19 were read during the ceremony. Jennifer Ritz Sullivan of Goshen, who helped organize the event, is seated beside Urquiza. Photo by Christopher Evans Christopher Evans—

  • Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father, Mark Urquiza, to COVID-19, receives a hug during a memorial event at Three Sisters Sanctuary in Goshen on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/Christopher Evans

  • Marcy Jacobs, left, of Mansfield, Mass., wipes away tears while standing with her daughter, Jaclyn Winer, as they mourn the loss of their husband and father to COVID-19 during a memorial event at Three Sisters Sanctuary in Goshen on Saturday, September 10, 2022. Fifty names of people who died due to COVID-19 were read during the ceremony. Photo by Christopher Evans Christopher Evans—

  • Jennifer Ritz Sullivan of Goshen, who lost her mother Earla Dawn to COVID-19, holds a photograph of Earla during a memorial event at Three Sisters Sanctuary in Goshen on Saturday, September 10, 2022. Fifty names of people who died due to COVID-19 were read during the ceremony. Photo by Christopher Evans Christopher Evans—

  • Fifty names of people who died due to COVID-19 are read during a COVID memorial event at Three Sisters Sanctuary in Goshen on Saturday, September 10, 2022. Photo by Christopher Evans Christopher Evans—

Staff Writer
Published: 9/11/2022 8:05:24 PM

GOSHEN — A liberator of a Nazi concentration camp who admonished others “never to hate.” A book-smart Holyoke teenager who loved to sing and make others laugh. A pioneer for LGBTQ equality whose activism was inspired by his experiences as a gay man in the 1950s. Parents, spouses and children as young as 7.

These are among the people lost to COVID-19 in the Pioneer Valley as the global death toll continues to climb every day, now eclipsing 6.5 million since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. More than 21,000 people have died in Massachusetts and their lives were collectively honored in a memorial ceremony Saturday afternoon at the Three Sisters Sanctuary healing garden on Route 112.

A nationwide volunteer organization called Marked by COVID, co-founded by Kristin Urquiza after the death of her father in Arizona, held an outdoor public reading of 50 obituaries by state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland; state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst; and radio personality Monte Belmonte.

“I feel lighter,” Urquiza said in an interview after the ceremony. “There’s a lot of grief that the bereaved community has been holding for one another. Many of these people, I’ve known for a long time now. We’ve been meeting online over Zoom and building this community and vision for what commemoration feels like.”

Marked by COVID is advocating for a federal holiday to mourn those lost to COVID-19, as well as a permanent public monument and greater equity in the pandemic response and recovery.

“I’ve been paying attention to what the UK is doing in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, and to me, that’s the level of national recognition that we need in order to reckon with the catastrophic loss of life that we’ve had here and are continuing to have here,” Urquiza said.

Remembered

Marked by COVID compiled obituaries through a combination of family submissions and publicly available material about each person.

Giada “Gigi” Rodriguez, of Holyoke, died at 13. Belmonte read her obituary after a short pause and with a tremor in his voice. He had told attendees that he may become overwhelmed with emotion.

Rodrigeuz “is remembered for her beaming smile and contagious laughter,” Belmonte read. “Her aunt said Gigi was an old soul. She loved music, sang beautifully. She was bougie, she liked fashion. She was very intelligent, book smart but a deep thinker. Gigi is missed by everyone lucky enough to know her.”

Cassidy Baracka, a 7-year-old dancer and gymnast from Groton, was the youngest person remembered at the ceremony. Among the oldest were Longmeadow couple David and Muriel Cohen, who died within hours of each other after 78 years of marriage.

“David served in the Army as a radio operator during World War II, where he was a liberator at the Ohrdruf concentration camp, a satellite camp of Buchenwald,” Belmonte read. He took photos during that time that are on display in the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and went on to become a history teacher; Muriel was described as a great-grandmother of eight who had been the neighborhood’s “go-to” person in emergencies.

Sunderland resident Kristin Marie Whalen died at 30; she was the office manager at Connecticut Valley Oral Surgeons in Amherst, noted for her humility, ambition and “blueberry eyes.”

Philip W. Boisseau, of Southampton, proud owner of Country Sealcoating, had a passion for the outdoors; he left his parents, wife, three young children and “quite possibly” his best friend, his chocolate lab Duke.

Others lost to COVID-19 were a 44-year-old Special Olympics athlete known for “the unconditional love he shared for everyone,” a former HIV/AIDS response director for the city of Springfield and a long list of military veterans, educators, human services volunteers and public health professionals.

“John Pope, 53, was a lifelong resident of Haydenville,” Domb read. An essential worker, he was “a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home in Northampton for more than a decade. John grew up across the street from the Williamsburg Fire Department, where he volunteered as a firefighter for 24 years. He loved Civil War history, cooking, sports, and the Beatles.”

The obituary for Pamela Bonzek Bates describes her as a Greenfield native who graduated magna cum laude from college at 64. Bates died in the hospital the day after she turned 67.

Retired UMass Amherst mathematics professor Jim Humphreys, of Northampton, was credited as an “active leader, donor and supporter of LGBTQ organizations” who helped to “open his field to future generations by working to establish visible recognition” for LGBTQ mathematicians.

Activism in the wake of grief

Jennifer Ritz Sullivan, of Goshen, the ceremony’s key organizer, said the current loss of life, while reduced from the height of the pandemic, is on the scale of “a 9/11 every week.”

The COVID justice leader in Massachusetts for Marked by COVID, Ritz Sullivan started volunteering after the death of her mother, Earla Dawn Dimitriadis. She was one of more than 77,000 people who died of COVID-19 in the U.S. in December 2020.

“She, like many of our loved ones, suffered while isolated in a hospital ICU for 2½ weeks, slowly suffocating to death,” she said. “Hospital staff were overwhelmed and the updates were few. I could only have one brief phone call with my mom before she died alone. … Our loved ones deserved more and we deserve more.”

She said that COVID-19 deaths “were and continue to be the result of policy choices” and the pandemic has disproportionately harmed Black, Indigenous and people of color, low-income people, and people with disabilities. Elected officials, she said, are responsible for ending the pandemic and preventing the next one.

The memorial ceremony was originally scheduled to take place last year but was postponed amid the spread of the novel coronavirus’ delta variant. In the interim, Three Sisters Sanctuary owner Richard Richardson lost his own mother to COVID-19.

“I started this 30 years ago to help heal from grief from the loss of my brother,” Richardson said, standing in the art and sculpture garden where he welcomes the public. “I’m very moved that the gardens have grown into what they are and that the sanctuary is known for what it can do, and that it’s called on for a day like today to serve our community.”

After grieving informally for so long, and postponing the ceremony once, Ritz Sullivan said that on Saturday, she felt “such a release.”

“I’m finding that there’s this coexistence of grief and joy today that’s really transformative and feels right for me,” she said.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.
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