Remarks on Remembering the 500,000 Americans Lost to COVID-19
Each day, I receive a small card in my pocket that I carry with me in my schedule. It shows the number of Americans who have been infected by or died from COVID-19. Today we mark a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone: 500,071 dead. That's more Americans who have died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam war combined. That's more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth.
But as we acknowledge the scale of this mass death in America, we remember each person and the life they lived. They're people we knew. They're people we feel like we knew. Read the obituaries and remembrances. The son who called his mom every night just to check in. The father's daughter who lit up his world. The best friend who was always there. The nurse—the nurse and nurses—but the nurse who made her patients want to live.
I was in—just in Kalamazoo, Michigan, at the Pfizer vaccine manufacturing facility. There I met a man when I walked in whose father-in-law was dying of the virus. He was sad. I asked if I could call his father-in-law. He said his father-in-law was too sick to speak. But then, he said, but could I pray for him—could I pray for him.
We all know someone—fellow Americans who lived lives of struggle, of purpose, and of hope; who talked late into the night about their dreams; who wore the uniform, born to serve; who loved, prayed, and always offered a hand.
We often hear people described as "ordinary Americans." There's no such thing; there's nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary. They spanned generations, born in America, immigrated to America. But just like that, so many of them took final breath alone in America.
As a nation, we can't accept such a cruel fate. While we have been fighting this pandemic for so long, we have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow. We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur or on the news. And we must do so to honor the dead, but equally important, care for the living and those they left behind.
For the loved ones left behind, I know all too well; I know what it's like to not be there when it happens. I know what it's like when you are there, holding their hands. There's a look in your eye, and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you're being sucked into it. The survivor's remorse. The anger. The questions of faith in your soul.
For some of you, it's been a year, a month, a week, a day, even an hour. And I know that when you stare at that empty chair around the kitchen table, it brings it all back, no matter how long ago it happened, as if it just happened that moment you looked at that empty chair. The birthdays, the anniversaries, the holidays without them. And the everyday things—the small things, the tiny things—that you miss the most. That scent when you open the closet. That park you go by that you used to stroll in. That movie theater where you met. The morning coffee you shared together. The bend in his smile. The perfect pitch to her laugh.
I received a letter from a daughter whose father died of COVID-19 on Easter Sunday last year. She and her children—his grandchildren—enter Lent this season, a season of reflection and renewal, with heavy hearts. Unable to properly mourn, she asked me in the letter, "What was our loss among so many others?"
Well, that's what has been so cruel. So many of the rituals that help us cope, that help us honor those we loved, haven't been available to us. The final rites with family gathered around. The proper homegoing, showered with stories and love. Tribal leaders passing out [without]* the final traditions of sacred cultures on sacred lands.
As a nation, we cannot—and we must—not let this go on. That's why the day before my Inauguration, at the COVID-19 Memorial at the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall, I said to heal—to heal—we must remember. I know it's hard. I promise you, I know it's hard; I remember. But that's how you heal: You have to remember. And it's also important to do that as a nation.
For those who have lost loved ones, this is what I know: They're never truly gone. They'll always be part of your heart. I know this as well—and it seems unbelievable, but I promise you—the day will come when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye. It will come. I promise you. My prayer for you though is that day will come sooner rather than later. And that's when you know you're going to be okay—you're going to be okay.
And for me, the way through sorrow and grief is to find purpose. I don't know how many of you have lost someone a while ago and are wondering: "Is he or she proud of me now? Is this what they want me to do?" I know that's how I feel. And we can find purpose, purpose worthy of the lives they lived and worthy of the country we love.
So today I ask all Americans to remember: Remember those we lost and those who are left behind. But as we remember—as we all remember, I also ask us to act. To remain vigilant, to stay socially distanced, to mask up, get vaccinated when it's your turn. We must end the politics and misinformation that's divided families, communities, and the country, and has cost too many lives already. It's not Democrats and Republicans who are dying from the virus. It's our fellow Americans. It's our neighbors and our friends, our mothers, our fathers, our sons, our daughters, husbands, wives.
We have to fight this together, as one people, as the United States of America. That's the only way we're going to beat this virus, I promise you. The only way to spare more pain and more loss—the only way these millstones no longer mark our national mourning—these milestones, I should say—no longer mark our national mourning. Let this not be a story of how far we fell, but of how far we climbed back up. We can do this.
For in this year of profound loss, we have seen profound courage from all of you on the frontlines. I know the stress, the trauma, the grief you carry. But you give us hope. You keep us going. You remind us that we do take care of our own. That we leave nobody behind. And that while we've been humbled, we have never given up. We are America. We can and will do this.
In just a few minutes, Jill and I, Kamala and Doug, will hold a moment of silence here in the White House: the People's House, your house. We ask you to join us to remember, so we can heal; to find purpose in the work ahead; to show that there is light in the darkness.
This Nation will smile again. This Nation will know sunny days again. This Nation will know joy again. And as we do, we'll remember each person we've lost, the lives they lived, the loved ones they left behind. We will get through this, I promise you. But my heart aches for you—those of you who are going through it right now.
May God bless you all, particularly those who have lost someone. God bless you.
NOTE: The President spoke at 6:01 p.m. in the Cross Hall at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Douglas C. Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala D. Harris.
* White House correction.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks on Remembering the 500,000 Americans Lost to COVID-19 Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/348103