Zoom memorials highlight the ironic cruelty of trying to mourn together during the pandemic
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Earlier this month, I attended my first Zoom wedding. A week after that, I attended a Zoom baby shower.

Tomorrow, I'll attend a Zoom gathering to mourn the loss of a family friend. His name was Peter. He died of COVID-19 last week.

This gathering isn't technically a funeral or memorial service, but rather a virtual devotional taking place on Zoom at the same time as Peter's physical burial. A few close friends and family will gather at the gravesite—masked and distanced—while the rest of us share readings and prayers over Zoom to honor his interment.

It's weird. There's no other way to say it. With the wedding and baby shower, we all sort of laughed our way through the weirdness. We acknowledged the bummer of not being able to get together, but at this point we're all accustomed to having to meet virtually. Zoom celebrations are better than no celebrations at all.

But mourning this way feels...different. We can't laugh away the awkwardness of it when the Zoom meeting itself is a reminder of the tragic cause of our friend's death.


Celebratory gatherings are fun, but not necessary. Gathering when someone dies feels necessary in a way, and the inability to do that adds an extra layer of loss to the grief we're already experiencing. Normally, our whole community would gather together to honor Peter's life tomorrow. We'd put on appropriate funeral attire, stand side by side at his grave, hold hands or hug one another as we mark the momentousness of his passing. We'd all bring food and break bread together as we share stories of his life. We'd pass around tissues, crying and laughing and sharing in the oh-so-human experience of bringing together the lives he had touched.

But we can't do any of that. If we did, we'd run the risk of having to do it all over again for another friend or loved one taken too soon by this stupid virus. So we do what we can do and deal with the strange questions—What does one wear to a Zoom mourning? How long it will be before we can actually gather for a real memorial service? Will it feel like it's too late then? Will we want to do that in the midst of celebrating a return to non-distanced life?

This pandemic has taken so much, and each thing stings in its own way. The death toll itself is overwhelming, especially here in the U.S. where we have already lost more than 330,000 lives. A hundred 9/11s and counting. Five Vietnams in less than a year. It's unreal. In the beginning, we were told that all of us would likely end up knowing someone who died of COVID-19, and some people have now lost multiple family members. More will follow as we head into the deadliest month of the pandemic. That's not doom and gloom forecasting—that's the reality of the current moment.

But the loss of in-person mourning as millions are losing loved ones before they expected to is a tragedy in and of itself. There's a cruel irony in it, that we can't gather in person to mourn if we want to stop the thing that's making it so we can't gather in person to mourn. When we need the comfort of coming together the most, we can't, as indulging in that comfort could lead to even more suffering. Of all of the sacrifices we've had to make, the loss of communal mourning is one of the hardest.

And so we open our computers and enter our virtual meeting rooms and try to comfort one another through our grief amid the inevitable unmute reminders. It's weird. It all feels wrong. But it's necessary. We need to mourn our losses together. We also need to be able to mourn the fact that we're not able to do that the way we want to.

There is gratitude to be found in all of this, of course. It's pretty incredible that we live in a time when we have the technology to at least see one another's faces and hear people's voices as we share our losses at a distance. If this pandemic had hit in my childhood, we'd have had no community ability to mourn at all. A Zoom gathering to mourn is better than no gathering at all—but it's still all of the weird, wrong, sad things at once.

And what's extra painful about it is that it didn't have to be this way. Next time we have a pandemic, let's all agree to just follow New Zealand's lead, shall we? Hundreds of thousands of Zoom funerals really ought to be enough to get us all on the same page.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

The difference between a politician and a public servant may be a matter of semantics, but when it comes to getting legislation passed that actually helps people, the contrast is stark.

Texas Representative James Talarico is on a mission to get his constituents the life-saving medicine they need. The 31-year-old lawmaker has just introduced legislation that would cap the price of insulin—a medicine people with type 1 diabetes need to live, which has become unaffordable for many—at $50 a month.

The mission is personal for Talarico, as he nearly died three years ago when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

He shared his story on Twitter:

"In May 2018, I was a healthy 28-year-old running for the Texas House. I decided to walk the entire length of my district and hold town halls along the way. I hike Big Bend every year, so I wasn't concerned about a 25 mile walk...

But halfway through the walk, I began feeling nauseous and fatigued. Before the town hall in Hutto, I vomited in the bathroom."

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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