Some won’t ever remember the parents they lost because they were too young when COVID-19 struck. Others are trying to keep the memory alive by doing the things they used to do together: making pancakes or playing guitar. Others still are clutching onto what remains, a pillow or a photo, as they adapt to lives with aunts, uncles and siblings stepping in to fill the void.
The 4 million people who have died so far in the coronavirus pandemic left behind parents, friends and spouses — but also young children who are navigating life now as orphans or with just one parent, who is also mourning the loss.
It’s a trauma that is playing out in big cities and small villages across the globe, from Assam state in northeast India to New Jersey and points in between.
And even as vaccination rates tick up, the losses and generational impact show no sign of easing in many places where the virus and its variants continue to kill. As the official COVID-19 death toll reached its latest grim milestone this week, South Korea reported its biggest single-day jump in infections and Indonesia counted its deadliest day of the pandemic so far.
Victoria Elizabeth Soto didn’t notice the milestone. She was born three months ago after her mother, Elisabeth Soto, checked into the hospital in Lomas de Zamora, Argentina, eight months pregnant and suffering symptoms of COVID-19.
Soto, 38, had tried for three years to get pregnant and gave birth to baby Victoria on April 13. The mother died six days later of complications from the virus. Victoria wasn’t infected.
Her father, Diego Roman, says he is coping little by little with the loss, but fears for his baby girl, who one day will learn she has no mother.
“I want her to learn to say ‘mom’ by showing her a picture of her,” Roman said. “I want her to know that her mother gave her life for her. Her dream was to be a mom, and she was.”
Tshimologo Bonolo, just 8, lost her father to COVID-19 in July 2020 and spent the year adjusting to life in Soweto, South Africa, without him.
The hardest thing has been her new daily routine: Bonolo’s father, Manaila Mothapo, used to drive her to school every day, and now she has to take public transport.
“I used to cook, play and read books with my papa,” Bonolo said. “What I miss most is jumping on my papa’s belly.”
In northwest London, Niva Thakrar, 13, cuts the grass and washes the family car — things her dad used to do. As a way to remember him, she takes the same walks and watches the movies they used to watch together before he died in March after a two-month hospital stay.
“I still try to do what we used to do before, but it’s not the same,” Thakrar said.
Jeshmi Narzary lost both parents in two weeks in May in Kokrajhar, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.
The 10-year-old went on to live with an aunt and two cousins, but could only move in after she underwent 14 days of quarantine herself during India’s springtime surge that made the country second only to the U.S. in the number of confirmed cases.
Narzary hasn’t processed the deaths of her parents. But she is scrupulous about wearing face masks and washing her hands, especially before she eats. She does so, she said, because she knows “that coronavirus is a disease which kills humans.”
Kehity Collantes, age 6, also knows what the virus can do. It killed her mother, a hospital worker in Santiago, Chile, and now she has to make pancakes by herself.
It also means this: “My papa is now also my mama,” she said.
Siblings Zavion and Jazzmyn Guzman lost both parents to COVID-19, and their older sisters now care for them. Their mother, Lunisol Guzman, adopted them as babies, but died last year along with her partner at the start of the violent first wave of the pandemic in the U.S. Northeast.
Katherine and Jennifer Guzman immediately sought guardianship of the kids — Zavion is 5 and Jazzymn 3 — and are raising them in Belleville, New Jersey.
“I lost my mother, but now I’m a mother figure,” said Jennifer Guzman, 29.
The losses of the Navales family in Quezon City, Philippines, are piling up. After Arthur Navales, 38, died on April 2, the family experienced some shunning from the community.
His widow, Analyn B. Navales, fears she might not be able to afford the new home they planned to move into, since her salary alone won’t cover it. Another question is whether she can afford the kids’ taekwondo classes.
Ten-year-old Kian Navales, who also had the virus, misses going out for noodles with his dad. He clutches onto one of the pillows his mother had made for him and his sister with a photo of their father on one side.
“Our house became quiet and sad. We don’t laugh much since papa left,” said Kian’s 12-year-old sister, Yael.
Maggie Catalano, 13, is keeping the memory of her father alive through music.
A musician himself, Brian Catalano taught Maggie some guitar chords before he got sick. He presented her with her own acoustic guitar for Christmas on Dec. 26, the day he came home from the hospital after a nine-day stay.
Still positive and weak, he remained quarantined in a bedroom but could hear Maggie play through the walls of their Riverside County, California, home.
“He texted me and said, ‘You sounded great, sweetie,’” Maggie recalled.
The family thought he had beaten the disease — but four days later, he died alone at home while they were out.
Devastated, Maggie turned to writing songs and performed one she composed at his funeral in May.
“I wish he could see me play it now,” she said. “I wish that he could see how much I have improved.”
AP photographers Mary Altaffer in Belleville, New Jersey; Jerome Delay in Soweto, South Africa; Aaron Favila in Quezon City, Philippines; Esteban Felix in Santiago, Chile; Jae C. Hong in Riverside County, California; Anupan Nath in Kokrajhar, India; Natacha Pisarenko in Lomas de Zamora, Argentina; and Thanassis Stavrakis in London contributed.