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A CNN Special: We Remember 500,000; A National Memorial Service For COVID-19. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired February 22, 2021 - 23:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST (on camera): Welcome to this special hour on CNN. We remember 500,000. I'm Jake Tapper in Washington. We're going to dedicate this hour to the half million Americans that we have lost to COVID-19. Mothers, and fathers, sons and daughters, grandparents, doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, janitors, they come from all walks of life, all races, all religions.

Last May, we held a memorial show like this one after we reached the grand milestone of 100,000. It is wrenching to confront the fact that we're now at 500,000. Five times that. In so many ways, COVID hasn't just killed our friends and family.

COVID killed for now at least our connections to our communities. Preventing our grandparents hug goodbye, preventing funerals, wakes and Shivas. Sadly, we still cannot gather safely together in large groups in a chapel, or a mosque, or a synagogue.

So, for the next hour, let us come together here to try to heal and to remember. We're going to share some incredible stories of lives that were cut too short but that were lived brilliantly. And we will be uplifted in prayer by religious leaders and gospel song.

Let's begin today with Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Archbishop of Washington D.C. He's America's first black cardinal, and he spoke at the COVID-19 victim's memorial on the National Mall led by President Biden in January. Cardinal, thanks so much for joining me. How do you try to console those who have lost loved ones?

CARDINAL WILTON GREGORY, ARCHBISHOP OF WASHINGTON D.C.: Well, Jake, one of things that I've discovered as a priest is that in the face of death and suffering and illness, words are inadequate. There's not really a lot of things that you can say other than saying I'm with you.

I consider it a privilege to share in your sorrow, and I assure you of my whole-hearted affection and support. Words don't come easy because we're facing the great mystery of death. And none of us have found the words that will completely alleviate the pain and the suffering that people experience.

TAPPER: And beyond that suffering, there is of course the fact that we're all going through this right now at a time when we can't come together. We can't hug friends and loved ones. For many people, it seems like a hopeless time. What do you say to those people?

GREGORY: Well, first of all, what this pandemic has done, it's increased our awareness of our humanity, our common humanity. This is not something that one group of people have endured, although admittedly, there are segments of our society that have been more drastically impacted. The poor, the elderly, people of color.

Those communities have endured a disproportionate amount of sadness. But all of us, no matter what our condition, have been brought to an awareness, I hope, a deeper awareness that we are one people. And that this illness, this disease, this virus is no respecter of persons.

TAPPER: What does your faith teach you about helping each other, especially when it's not safe to physically come together and grieve?

GREGORY: Well, one of the things that as a catholic we celebrate is the sacramental reality of our faith. That is, it's a faith that is expressed in word, in sacrament, in sign, in prayer, in music. And not being able to have a full display of those sacramental signs of our faith is itself an additional sorrow.


But I have often said, and had said to me, that we as Catholics are grateful that we have each other. Even under these limited and painful moments where we cannot, as you have alluded so well, be with each other to reach out and touch one another, to embrace, and to be in the presence of those who are suffering.

TAPPER: And before you go, cardinal, would you lead us in a prayer, to help comfort those who may be suffering right now?

GREGORY: Jake, that would be my great honor and privilege.

Let us now open our hearts to recall those who have died from the coronavirus. We humbly ask the creator of all to grant eternal peace to all our sisters and brothers lost to this disease. Strengthen those families and friends who remain behind to comfort one another, and to wipe the tears from our eyes.

May each one find peace, and let the memory of our loved ones be itself a blessing. Our hearts are filled with gratitude for our doctors, nurses, and emergency personnel. May they remain well, and be strengthened. We pray that regardless of race, age, religious heritage, economic or immigration status, all people are able to receive the life-saving vaccines to bring an end to our common suffering.

May the one who fashioned us help us to focus on our mutual humanity, although weary from so many months of isolation, help us not to lose hope. Help us to continue to care for our neighbors as we remember those we have lost in this pandemic. Assist us in replenishing our compassion under the guidance of the one who is the ultimate source of our peace and our unity. Amen. TAPPER: Amen. Cardinal Gregory, thank you so much. We really

appreciate it.

GREGORY: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up, we are going to have an uplifting performance by Gospel singer Marvin Sapp. And throughout the hour, we want to remember some of the extraordinary people so cruelly taken from us because of the pandemic such as a Special Olympian, who love getting his family the weather report, the country music star, who was a mentor to Brad Paisley and a pediatrician, whose daughter calls her the life of the party.


ADISHA VERMA, DAUGHTER OF ANJALI VERMA: Hi, my name is Adisha Verma, and I'm the daughter of Dr. Anjali Verma, who passed away November 24th, 2020, from COVID. My mom was a force of nature. So anytime she walked in a room, all eyes were on her. She was always considered the life of the party, always making sure that everyone was having a great time and everyone was involved in all of the activities.

One of the things I remember most about her is the fact that she was a (inaudible), so helping sick babies. She was a pediatrician with her own medical practice, she was an incredible person. And one of the things I remember personally is hearing all of the patient stories and just hearing how many lives she's saved.

The other thing I also remember is that she always loved to cook and try new cuisines and be innovative with her recipes. So, every time I smell Indian spices or food being cooked in the kitchen, it always reminds me of her.

JOHN MARKT, BROTHER OF JOE MARKT: Hello, my name is John Markt, and I'm with my wife for 40 years. And to tell you about my youngest brother Joe, who passed away at the age of 58. He was born with down syndrome. Growing up in Cleveland.

He was a boy scout, he participated in the Special Olympics, he wrestled and plays softball. Joe, loved polka music and going to his monthly dance club. He loved the daily weather forecast and acting as the family's weatherman. He was a devoted sports fan, he loved the Master's tournament, we made him his own green jacket with a Masters logo, which he proudly wore at every family event.

PAM MARKT, SISTER-IN-LAW OF JOE MARKT: Joe, instantly became closed friend to everyone that he met. He lived for the next holiday or family party. And he really knew how to work a room. He was a great conversationalist.

We all loved his honest, sometimes awkward toasts at family gatherings where no one was spared. He had no filter, and he often said the things that we were all thinking but were too timid to express. He had just a way of taking your focus off of daily Monday activities and reminding you what really is most important in life.


J. MARKT: Joe had a great sense of humor. He was kind and loving. Gracefully vulnerable, and gave the greatest hugs. I want to remember him as someone who made you look at life through a different lens.

BRAD PAISLEY FRIEND OF CHARLEY PRIDE: Anybody who ever makes it in the music business has to overcome incredible odds. But there's never been anything like how Charlie Pride burst on to the scene in country music and just shattered barriers like they didn't exist. In a world where they definitely did exist. He was someone that had this incredible voice, this incredible love of country music, and an ability to entertain and charisma.

UNKNOWN: (MUSIC PLAYING) You got to kiss an angel good morning.

PAISLEY: I remember hearing the stories of how people were shocked when they found out he was African-American. But they had fallen in love with his songs and thereby they were ready to fall in love with him. He was already in their hearts. And what an incredible story from then on. I opened for him as a teenager, I remember being really excited because I had heard that he takes a real interest in young talent.

And sure enough, like clockwork, I'm up there on the stage playing and he hears that there's a teenager that is not bad. And he goes out and sits down in the darkness to my dad in the audience. And says, this kid is really good. Who is he? And my dad says, well, that's my son. And he writes down his home number and hands it to my dad and says, listen, if you ever need anything, call me.

And sure enough, when we got to Nashville the first time, I gave him a ring. And we kept in touch, and he did help. He was one of those guys through the years that would do anything for anybody. And I'm so thrilled to have been his friend all these years. And I can't believe the legacy he leaves behind. We will really miss him.

UNKNOWN: (MUSIC PLAYING) Love her like the devil when you get back home.






TAPPER: Welcome back to our special, honoring the victims of COVID-19 communities across the country remembering the 500,000 Americans who we have lost to this pandemic. Such as in Atlanta, where families are covering a fence with pictures of a broken heart. Each picture more than 5,000 in all. Each one honors someone who died from the virus.

In Idaho, Bruce Mason keeps his American flag flying at half staff. It's been that way since last spring. He also plants a white flag it his front lawn every time someone in Idaho loses his or her life to the coronavirus.

Joining us now is Rabbi Anne Brener. She's the author of mourning and mitzvah, a guided journal for walking the mourner's path through grief to healing. Rabbi, thank you so much for joining us, for honoring us with your presence. How do we move through grief and mourning and into healing? How do you get there?

RABBI ANNE BRENER, AUTHOR OF MOURNING AND MITZVAH, A GUIDED JOURNAL FOR WALKING THE MOURNER'S PATH THROUGH GRIEF TO HEALING (on camera): Well, I think that one thing that we have to remember is that we don't get there quickly. That it takes time, it is a journey and if we don't take the time to give attention to our grief and all of the ramifications of it, then we don't get the lessons that grief teaches us and we don't really come out of it understanding fully what it means to be human.

TAPPER: Yes, so I know grief is a healthy process, it's not something to be avoided as you suggest. And you say it helps confront what it means to be human. Explain that to us.

BRENER: Well, I think that all of us operate under the assumption that we are going to live forever. It's just impossible not to believe that, or the things don't change and that we can count on things to always be the same. And in fact, what we have learned certainly in the last year is that things do change and we can't really count on things not to.

And so, when we are affected by grief, when we lose someone who is very important to us, we have to find the tools to confront the fact that we to are mortal. And with it, take the time to learn what it means to be mortal. I think that so many of us have lived in a culture of denial for so long.

And I think it's a normal thing. I think about after the First World War and the pandemic that came after, people rushed into the jazz age, rushed into the -- just the joy and the dancing instead of taking the time to mourn the grief.

And after the Second World War as well, people were just overwhelmed by the losses in the war, in Hiroshima, in the holocaust, and it was just too hard. People just sailed into a world of consumerism. The jazz age ended with the depression, and this situation that we've come from has caused us to just consume and forget about the consequences of consumption and to leave, to put things in the oceans.


I think that a lot of the climate crisis comes right out of our denial. When we truly mourn, we learn that we are finite individuals. On a planet where living things die. And when we confront that, we learn to treasure every day, we learn to be compassionate. There's a lot to be learned from our grief. And if we don't take the time, we don't get that healing. TAPPER: There's a Jewish expression of condolence that I use every

time I do an obituary on my show, which I had been doing, kind of doing everyday, because of COVID. The expression is, may his or her memory be a blessing. Or may her memory be a blessing. What do we take from those words?

BRENER: Well, I think in the first part of it, it says that, yes, mourning really hurts. And right now, when the grief is still raw, the memories of someone in their illness or the sudden death, or whatever it was, and especially at this time when we can't even be with people when they're dying, those memories are not a blessing.

But if we take the time to heal, if we take the time to truly mourn, then all of a sudden our salient memories are the ones that are healing, that are beautiful. The best example I can give of this Jake, is when I was 24, I lost my mother and my sister within three months. And I ran from New Orleans, which was the place that our family lived.

And people said, how can you leave? And I would say, every tree, every street corner, has a memory. It's excruciating. And now when I go back and I go back as often as I can, they ask, what's it like to be back in New Orleans. And I say, oh, every tree, every street corner has a memory. It's exquisite.

TAPPER: Before you go, Rabbi Brener, would you lead us in a prayer to help those in mourning?

BRENER: Certainly. Certainly.

Holy one of blessing, we surrender to your compassion the many souls that have left us in this time of great suffering. May they be gently folded into the bundle of souls that find their eternal resting place under your wings? Healer of shattered hearts, give us comfort. Give us the strength not to rush into a new normal that looks just like the old normal, but to take the time to learn the lessons of grief.

May you fill our broken places with the wisdom that only comes when we fully face what it means to be human? Help us to recognize the preciousness of each moment. Give us hearts of compassion. Teach us to honor the spark of holiness that we share with all of your creations. Turn the cracks in our aching hearts into vessels though which we can channel your compassion, you compassion and your peace into the world and let us say, amen.

TAPPER: Amen. Rabbi Brener, thank you so enough for your time and your wise words.

BRENER: Thank you, Jake. Thank you so much.

TAPPER: Behind each of these 500,000 deaths is a story. A story of life, love, a story of family. Including a mother who had an amazing sense of adventure, a comedian who followed the lead of his loving older brother. And an army veteran who just had celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary.


name is Jill Alexander. My dad Paul J. Foley Jr. died in Chicago on April 17, 2020 from COVID. My dad was a U.S. Army veteran, who served in the demilitarize zone, and when he was finished serving his country, he came back and worked for 35 years as an executive at Goodyear tire. My dad was married to my mom for 50 years at the time that he died. They had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

He had four children and nine grandchildren. I would like my dad to be remembered for the wonderful family man that he was. He instilled in us from the minute we were born the importance of family. He cherished us, and if there's anything that can bring me comfort in these awful circumstances, it's the fact that there has never been a moment where I did not feel my dad's love.

Where I did not feel his pride for me, and for my brother, and my sisters. As well as his nine grandkids. He was more than a number. He was just the best dad. And every day of my life, there's a heaviness because of his absence.


LARRY WILMORE, BROTHER OF MARC WILMORE: My brother Marc Wilmore was a comedy writer and a comedian. And for me, he was the funniest person that I have ever known. And we spent all of our childhood sleeping in the same room, on bunk beds. And we would go to bed trying to make each other laugh. It was kind of our ritual. He was just so funny and inventive, and just so original.

I mean, even before the phrase keeping it 100, you know, was a thing, my brother always, always saw the truth in things. He was a brilliant guy. He wrote on some great shows like The Simpsons. And always made people laugh in the writer's room. And the funny thing about Marc, I don't think he believed in himself as much as other people believed in him, you know, which is amazing. Because he was so brilliant.

In fact, because he was my little brother, and you know, I played football, he played football, I went to comedy, he went to comedy, I became a writer, he became a writer, he always felt like he was in my shadow. But it really wasn't true. If anything, the only reason why I cast a shadow was because I was standing in his light. I miss you so much, Marc. And I love you so much, little brother.

PJ MAY, DAUGHTER OF SHIRLEE JOSSELYN: My name is P.J. May, and I'm sharing some memories of my mom, Shirlee Josselyn. My mom would be surprised and humbled to know that she's being remembered in such a public way. My mom had a sense of adventure and fun. Arranging for camping and (inaudible) trips in the (inaudible), coordinating major skiing and sledding trips for our family and friends, and fabulous dinner parties in our home.

One time, she challenged my two brothers and me to a month of eating a different vegetable every day, going from A to Z. She was very creative, and a good problem solver. In later years, she would end our visits by telling me how much she loved me, and appreciated what I did for her. I felt so fortunate that we had this special time together so I could

return in some small way the love and devotion she had for our family. I'll close by sharing what she always said as I waved good-bye. Now, be good, but just a little bit bad. Thanks, mom. I miss you.





TAPPER (on camera): Welcome back. As we honor the half million Americans who lost their lives to coronavirus, we also recognize, as the cardinal mentioned earlier, that this virus is not hitting every community in the United States equally. Right now, according to the CDC, Blacks and Hispanics are about three times more likely to be hospitalized and about twice as likely two to die from coronavirus.

And those numbers are even higher for the Native American population or think about it this way. According to the COVID Tracking Project, for white Americans, one out of every 862 people died from coronavirus. For Hispanics, that number goes up to one out of 709. For Native Americans, it's one in 625. For Black Americans, that number is one out of every 602 people.

Healing during this difficulty time can also come from music. We asked Bishop Marvin Sapp, a renowned gospel singer, to record his platinum- selling hit "Never Would Have Made It." Listen with us and pay special attention to the photos you will see from America showing the hometown memorials all across the country for the victims of COVID-19.






TAPPER (on camera): Thank you to Marvin Sapp. Those pictures of this last brutal year -- wow! Now let's hear more of the personal memories from just some of the 500,000 Americans lost to coronavirus, including the father who was the pastor of the church he founded in Maryland, the mother and teacher who was the life of the party, and the record producer who was in charge of the live musical acts for "Saturday Night Live."


BILL HADER, FRIEND AND COLLEAGUE OF HAL WILLNER: Hi, I'm Bill Hader, and I'm here to talk about my friend, Hal Willner.

UNKNOWN (voice-over): It's Saturday Night Live.

HADER: He was the music supervisor at "Saturday Night Live." I didn't really realized how he (ph) was until you have these musical luminaries come and play the show like Elvis Costello or Bono or U2, Rene (ph) would come in and the first thing he would say is, you know, is Hal Willner here?

And that's when I realized that he not just be with us now but was record producer and specialized in putting together these giant kind of concept albums that featured pretty much every great musician. I think they did these because they loved and respected Hal.

His knowledge was so vast and he was a guy that was a massive fan of everything. And it kind of taught me that those things you love as a kid, those are the things that made you want to do this for a living. And so, you know, you should celebrate that. That's the fuel for your craft.

"SNL" could be such a hard place. But Hal, just the way that he carried himself, was someone that constantly reminded me that it should be fun and how lucky we were that we got to do this for a living.

When we all found out that Hal had passed away from COVID, it's still a thing I think we are all kind of grappling with. But he's had a massive influence on my life, whether he knew it or not, and I'm all the better for it.

QURRAT ANN KADWANI, DAUGHTER OF FAREEDA KADWANI: On April 28th, 2020, I lost my mother, Fareeda Kadwani, to COVID-19. I'm her daughter, Qurrat, and not a day goes by without me thinking about my mother and remembering her. She lived in India for half her life and she was a teacher there. She immigrated to the U.S. with my father and my brothers and proceeded to be a teacher with the New York City board of ed until she retired.

She was really the life of the party. She cared so much for so many people. I remember that she would always try to make me feel better. If I feel I gained weight, she would tell me, no, it's just the weather.


KADWANI: It's so strange not to have her here. I wish that COVID hadn't taken her from us.



Y. FLOWERS: And we are two of the four children of the late Bishop James N. Flowers, Jr., who was one of the first to die in the State of Maryland from COVID-19 on April the 6th, 2020, at the age of 84. Our father was a great man, and we miss him dearly. He was the founder and pastor of the Shining Star Freewill Baptist Church in Seat Pleasant, Maryland for 38 years. He was also a community activist, who gave his heart to the people, receiving keys to two cities, and also been honored with a street named after him in the city of Seat Pleasant, Maryland.

Our father was married to our mother, the love of his life, the late Margaret Louise Flowers, for 58 years. She predeceased him just a year prior to his death. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about my father. I wish he was here.


R. FLOWERS: And also, he was a great recording artist from the age of nine, from Longwood, North Carolina. He sang for 70 years. And one of the songs that stick with me forever is "What Will I Leave Behind."






TAPPER: It is difficult to truly comprehend that we have lost half a million Americans in just under one year. Think about just how deadly this virus is. That's like wiping out a city the size of Kansas City, Missouri. Five hundred thousand, it's almost the number of Americans killed in World War I and World War II combined, and those wars took place over 10 years.


TAPPER: The sad truth is when it comes to COVID deaths the United States is so far ahead of everyone else, according to official number. America has more than twice the number of lives lost to the coronavirus as Brazil, the country with the second highest number of COVID deaths.

Let's talk more about the grief that so many of our fellow Americans are facing. David Kessler has written six books, including his bestseller, "Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief."

Thank you, David, for joining us. You're currently working with people who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. What do you say to them?

DAVID KESSLER, AUTHOR: I let them speak. Thank you for having me, Jake. The first thing I do is I let them speak. I witnessed their stories. I hear about their loved ones. Grief is such an isolating experience in our old world. It's excruciating these days for so many.

TAPPER: And it's not just obviously the loss of life because there's also been this horrific economic catastrophe. What do you even begin to say to someone who has lost their home or their job, their social connections, in addition to loved ones? They're suffering, as well, in a compounded way.

KESSLER: It's such a good point. We often think of grief as only around death and forget it's always the death of something. It's the death of a job. It's the death of your income. It's the death of your home. So it is a true grief that people are feeling and it's not being seen.

I think you know of three types of losses we're dealing with now, obviously, the horrific loss of the half million lives. We're also dealing with the grief of the world that has gone, the jobs, the restaurants, the place where we used to gather, the world we all knew just a year ago.

And the third is the collateral losses, the mental illness that is unseen, the death by suicides that are increasing, and cancer treatments that are being delayed and postponed. There are so many losses these days. We don't even know that the discomfort we're feeling on a daily is grief.

TAPPER: Yeah, not to mention all the children traumatized by the lack of social connection because they're doing education remotely. How do we --

KESSLER: Friends, connection.


KESSLER: Just the socialization that kids deserve.

TAPPER: Yeah. How do we as Americans process a number like 500,000? How can you even wrap your head around it?

KESSLER: We can't. Our mind tends to go numb. And I really encourage people to work through that tendency. One of the most horrific things in this situation that has never happened before is when someone died of cancer and we discussed our loved one who died of cancer, we've never had anyone say, yeah, I don't know if I believe in the whole cancer thing.

People have lost so many lives and souls and then they receive instead of support and condolence, doubt, dismissal, denial, and this grief is going so unseen.

So when someone tells us their loved one has died from COVID or anything else during this time, it's not a moment to respond, it's a moment to listen, to understand, to be curious about that person, to hear and witness their grief.

TAPPER: Would you lead us in a moment of reflection for those whom we've lost and for those struggling to get by and to get through this pandemic?

KESSLER: Absolutely. I wanted to write some words for this unique occasion that is so horrific that we're dealing with.

A loved one dying is the hardest experience any of us will have to face. The pain is excruciating. The feeling of devastation, unmatched by anything we have ever known.

Many of you have experienced a forced separation from your loved ones when they died. I want to remind you they still died with all of your love. I don't believe when our loved ones die, we stop loving them, and I don't believe they stop loving us.

Let us not give death any more power than it has. It has the power to end a physical life, but not our relationships and not our love. Love never dies.

Let me take a moment and speak directly with you, to those 500,000 souls. Let us take a moment and send them love. And as we go forward in life, to let them know we will never move on from you, but rather forward with you. We will bring you with us in our life and in our future. You remain unforgettable and we will always honor you.


KESSLER: Others may find it hard to comprehend the losses, but we will create a world where your death is not meaningless because your life was so meaningful. We may now feel this is a traumatic wound in our life and in our world. And we hope, someday, for this to become our cherished wound. We will remember you today and always. You will live forever in our love. Thank you.

TAPPER: Thank you, David. Thank you so much for your time and for those words. We really appreciate it.

KESSLER: Thank you.

TAPPER (on camera): Every victim of COVID leaves behind something that we will never forget such as a man whose music might live on forever, the husband and wife who were inseparable, and the brother who lived life the way he wanted.


DEBRA MCCOSKEY-REISERT, SISTER OF BOBBY MCCOSKEY: My name is Debra McCoskey-Reisert, and I am the sister Bobby McCoskey of Clarksville, Indiana. Bobby was taken by COVID on April 29th, 2020. He was born with an intellectual disability. He didn't let that stop him from living life the way he wanted, though. He loved to volunteer. He spent decades ringing the bell for the Salvation Army. He loved arts and crafts.

One time, he called to tell me that he went to the Indiana Special Olympics and he earned the silver medal in the sport of bowling. Our family remembers him for his kind heart. He gave to anyone that he saw a need, even though he had very little means.

Our family's hearts are shattered. Bobby loved a song. The end of the lyrics say, "every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." I don't know what that looks like, yet. But for now, our family started Bobby's bikes so we can continue his legacy of kindness and generosity.


BOB GAUDIO, FRIEND AND BANDMATE OF TOMMY DEVITO: When I was a kid, and I was a kid, I thought of Tommy as the protector. If we lived in the 12th century, he could have been, I don't know, Richard the lion- hearted. He had a good heart. He was a fierce friend. And he's the kind of guy you want on your side in a bar fight. I will miss him, and the insanity we all went through together.






TAPPER: Five hundred thousand Americans dead. It's difficult to process and it may be difficult to grieve when we still do not know when this cruel pandemic will end.

We do, however, hope that this hour of prayer and reflection, memories, and music, may help some of you begin to heal. We're going to leave you today with Brigham Young University's a cappella group, Vocal Point, singing the song "Be Thou My Vision." May the memories of all the Americans lost to this cruel virus be a blessing.