“Two weeks ago.” Alex Goldstein’s February 22, 2023 retweet of a FacesOfCOVID memorial post was short and bittersweet. “PAT ‘JUKE’ ALFANO, 71, of West Milford, New Jersey, died of COVID on Feb. 8, 2023. Pat was optimistic, brave and undaunted in all situations and was always ready to lend a hand. He will be missed terribly, remembered often and loved forever.”
Goldstein began the Twitter account FacesOfCOVID in March 2020 as a way to put faces and stories to the people behind the spiking death toll of the pandemic in its earliest wave. Over the next few months, he developed a rhythm of daily memorial posts, each with personal data (e.g., date of death and city or town of residence), a photograph, and quotation about the deceased. Akin to the New York Times’s series “Portraits of Grief” in its adaptive memorial practice, Goldstein’s Twitter account provided compact digital portraits of loss that could be liked, retweeted, and commented on, disseminating mourning among an eclectic audience of followers.
Three years later, as the Biden administration announced the termination of the COVID-19 public health emergency and as mainstream media herald a post-pandemic return to “normalcy,” COVID mourners and their allies like Goldstein are not yet done with commemoration. With more than 1,125,000 deaths in the United States, the lack of acknowledgment of individual losses—evoked in online spaces with the hashtag #notjustanumber—has caused many bereaved to continue seeking communion in virtual spaces, “sheltering” their stories, and insisting on remembrance. Even as the restrictions and circumstances of isolation that spawned their virtual existence have largely fallen away, they persist in demanding recognition. They do so by navigating differences among mourners’ timeframes and experiences of loss (e.g., in the first months or later waves of the pandemic, under lockdown or reopened conditions, before or after vaccines became available) as well as notions of grievability, preventability, stigma, and blame.
Digital snapshots of life and loss
Digital snapshots of loss, introduced with the FacesOfCOVID posts, have been reworked by various initiatives to accommodate different stages and degrees of mourning against a changing pandemic landscape. A concise conjuring of individual lives and loss, the form seems to have gained traction for its capacity to convey succinctly and poignantly the essence of the deceased or their memory. A key feature of the genre can then be its purposeful bounding of debate: eschewing politicized language of cause or blame, the focus is instead on the person’s image and a minimalist snippet of biographical data. In one Instagram post, a woman who passed away from COVID beams at the camera while cradling a newborn and with another small child nestled beside her, the short caption highlighting her many family roles. On Facebook, a different COVID victim is memorialized with a slightly longer story marking the third anniversary of his death and detailing his life, relationships, and personal qualities. There is no mention of exposure to the virus or pre-existing conditions, or hints of blame in these snapshots; their focus rests on the life and memory of the individual lost to COVID.
In addition to providing a way to circulate memories and offer condolences, in the early stages of the public health crisis these digital snapshots represented an attempt to break through the statistics and move people—regardless of whether they had lost someone to COVID—to protect themselves and prevent further loss. But as the pandemic enters its fourth year, with the United States still averaging 300–500 deaths per day, the snapshots do more than signpost grief to draw the broader public’s attention. In their counterintuitive endurance, they reveal an inwardly referential space of remembrance, one that validates shared experiences of loss and provides a vehicle for continued expressions of grief.
Digital spaces of support and advocacy
The digital snapshot exists within a larger virtual commemorative context. From the onset of the pandemic, online platforms, such as Zoom and Facebook, became a cornerstone of COVID advocacy and support communities. Originally used to facilitate virtual face-to-face communication when in-person gathering was impossible, this form of contact is still preferred by those who are hesitant to meet outside of the digital. Online spaces also provide the affordance of bringing together people from all over the United States, allowing them to share their diverse experiences of loss, grief, and frustration—whether that be from losing a loved one to COVID or living with Long COVID.
Advocacy and support groups, such as COVID Survivors for Change, Marked By COVID, and Covid-19 Loss Support for Family & Friends continue to meet weekly, three years into the pandemic. In addition to the support and deep sense of community they provide, members value these online communities for the acknowledgement of their losses, something most feel they have not received from elected officials or their local communities. At the end of its “Mark the Million” virtual memorial hosted by Marked By COVID in March 2022, the chat filled with expressions of solidarity and gratitude: “Thank you to everyone for sharing your stories of your loved ones. We are all here for each other and can truly understand each other’s pain and grief and LOSS!!” Many routinely encounter—both online and in person—discourse that denies the severity of COVID.
While the majority of these online COVID groups share similar interests, their needs and aims are not universal. Some of them focus more squarely on bereavement, support, and safe spaces, while others concentrate on legislation at local, state, and federal levels. Marked By COVID, an organization centered on “pandemic justice and remembrance,” seeks to advance national memorialization efforts through targeted legislation. The group has also created a virtual national memorial built from online digital tributes. Still in its inception, the virtual memorial integrates augmented reality (AR) technology (“powered by Snapchat”) to “provide remembrance and healing” while it documents the “pandemic’s far-reaching costs.” The organization posts regular tributes on social media (in the digital snapshot genre), including on their Instagram and Twitter accounts.
Alongside these online support and advocacy communities are memorial initiatives created to help the bereaved share stories of their loved ones lost to the pandemic. Theirs is a longer-form storytelling practice, in which participants are invited to explore their memories of loss as well as the pre-pandemic biographies of the deceased. Some of these initiatives have integrated the device of the digital snapshot to supplement their long-form medium.
Poet Martha Greenwald started WhoWeLost.org in January 2021 (first as a local Kentuckian initiative, which then expanded into a national site) as a way to “shelter” memories, offering “a safe space, free from trolls, judgments, and virus politics.” Working with the bereaved to craft their individual narratives, she reviews all posts beforehand, and the site doesn’t allow comments, “so the often-toxic world of social media and temporality is avoided.” Care for language is mirrored in the site’s care for aesthetic detail. Image blocks fill the “Memory Shelter” page, each square a photograph of a torn scrap of paper resting on the keys of typewriter, with typewritten words beckoning the reader to click and read more: “I could smell my mother’s hairspray as I emptied her clothes closet”; “Remember that class trip to the Met when we got lost in the Egyptian temple?”; “He said, ‘oh no, such a nice lady.’ I cried, said thank you & left the store.” Greenwald created an Instagram account to help draw attention to the WhoWeLost.org site, though not to be the stories themselves.
The For Those We Lost podcast, started in August 2021, invites guests from across the country to share their story, including the circumstances that ultimately led to their loved one’s death. While earlier episodes are hour-long exchanges between founder and host Jennifer Sullivan and her interviewees, later ones add to this format: for example, each episode of season two opens with series of sound clips—audio digital snapshots—from previous interviews that underscore the need to talk, to witness loss and lift up the memory of their loved one. A woman explains, “One thing I like to tell people is that if you lose somebody to COVID your need to talk about the person you lost will outlast other people’s desire to hear about it.” Another voice closes the montage, urging fellow mourners to keep witnessing despite the wider public’s impatience to move on from the pandemic and its bad memories: “So talk about them. Talk about them ‘till people are sick of hearin’ about them. ‘Cause as long as you’re still talking about them, they’re never far away.” Sullivan supplements her podcast interviews with short-form posts on her social media pages, which, similar to other digital snapshots, often include pictures of the interviewee and the deceased, as well as relevant quotes from the appropriate episodes.
Straddling digital and physical worlds
Not all digital snapshots of loss develop directly from the online COVID world. Rima Samman’s memorial to her brother, Rami’s Heart Memorial, had a more intertwined origin of in-person and online commemoration. What started in January 2021with painted yellow shells on a beach in the shape of a heart, grew into a temporary physical memorial filled with stones inscribed with names of COVID deceased. Over the course of a few days, through her social media accounts, hundreds of mourners from across the United States asked Rima to include their loved ones in her memorial. The impromptu site quickly expanded as the submissions flooded in.
Eventually Rima and her partner Travis began to seek an alternate, permanent location for the protection and preservation of the shells and stones. As the first crowdfunded permanent national memorial for COVID-19, now situated at Allaire Community Farm in Wall, New Jersey, Rami’s Heart Memorial encapsulates the dynamism of virtual and physical commemorative ritual. Created during an isolating time of uncertainty about the virus and in the face of drastic loss, the physical, tactile memorial grew out of the digital—virtual submissions of victims’ names and memories that Rima and Travis then translated into material form.
Besides the tremendous commitment of time and energy to maintain the physical memorial, Rima utilizes social media and her website to accept new submissions of names and to post digital snapshots of the individuals memorialized at the physical site. This circularity of physical and digital memory work is a recurring theme across the entire project and a unique feature of this particular commemorative effort.
Enduring snapshots, snapshots of endurance
The pandemic brought technology into spaces of death and mourning in unprecedented ways. Digital snapshots are a part of that improvisational field. Mourners developed the genre to ensure not only that their loved one would not be forgotten but also that they would be remembered for more than the virus that killed them—that the deceased were real people, with individual stories who belonged to families and communities. To show that they were loved.
In its compact form, the digital snapshot has allowed mourners from different moments within the pandemic to share their individual stories with text, image, and audio in short posts that can be easily spread around the internet. They connect the bereaved with others experiencing similar grief and reach even those who did not lose someone to COVID. Thus, despite their seemingly ephemeral nature, these snapshots of loss have a certain staying power: in holding memory aloft they offer protection through recognition and empathy, a validation not always available from the wider public.
Illustrator bio: An Pan is a multimedia designer, illustrator, and culture lover. He is currently a designer-accessory to Chinese consumerism but works with a big dream of decolonizing design. He enjoys traveling and doll collecting.