When Evelyn Richard met her husband, Ray, in the 1970s, they lived hundreds of miles apart.
“He was actually in Walton [in Boone County, Ky.] visiting a friend that he had made while he was in the Navy,” she said. “I saw Ray in the congregation at the church and asked who he was. And then we were introduced.”
They went on a date. There was a spark. So they kept in touch.
“We didn’t have texting. And we would talk to each other on the phone occasionally, but it was long-distance. That was expensive. So we would write letters.”
In 1978, after a few months of correspondence, they got engaged; married the next year. They kept the letters tucked away in shoeboxes for decades.
After Ray Richard died from COVID-19 in November, Evelyn Richard pulled out those letters.
She spent hours reading them.
“It made me feel like he was still here in a way and also reconfirmed how much we loved each other,” she said.
Every Kentuckian who died of COVID-19 is more than a number. They were a friend, family member, partner, coworker, someone with a story, like Ray Richard. A new project is collecting those stories, and Evelyn Richard is one of about 50 people to have shared her memories on WhoWeLostKY.org. It’s a repository of remembrances of people killed by the coronavirus. Each submission is written by a loved one or friend.
Evelyn Richard said she wanted to participate “because so many people still think that it’s not serious. And there’s some people that even say that it’s fake.”
“Well, it’s not fake, because I lost the love of my life,” she said.
In her submission, she wrote that she misses her husband every day: “My heart is forever his.”
A ‘Writing Assignment’
WhoWeLostKY founding director and writer Martha Greenwald stressed that this pandemic is ongoing despite eased restrictions and vaccines being widely available for people 12 and up.
“It seems to me that for those who have not lost someone, they may feel things are back to normal,” Greenwald said. “Every ad on TV is about reunions and… coming out of the pandemic. But for someone who’s lost someone to COVID, that reunion is not going to happen.”
She got the idea for the project during one of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s COVID-19 briefings last fall.
State public health commissioner Dr. Steven Stack asked people to send him snail mail, sharing how they felt about the pandemic: about how COVID-19 concerns them and how it concerns their fellow Kentuckians.
“Now email doesn’t count because it’s too easy, and I don’t respond to people on Twitter… but if you want to take the time to make up a notecard, send a notecard to me, I’ll look over those,” Stack said during the Oct. 5 briefing.
“He called it a writing assignment,” Greenwald said. “And something went off in my head at that moment that I knew there was something more to this than what he was asking for.”
She thought about how COVID-19 changed the grieving process, especially earlier in the pandemic when people couldn’t hold in-person funerals, Shivas, memorials or wakes. People couldn’t be with their loved ones in their final moments. Greenwald wanted to create a place that might offer some comfort to those who are mourning as well as a place for remembrance.
“It became increasingly evident to me that people needed to tell these stories for themselves, as well as to remember who was gone,” she said.
How It Works
To submit a story, people fill out a form on the WhoWeLostKY site.
She doesn’t edit any stories that come in. Though she does review each submission to make sure it’s appropriate for the site before publishing.
“I wanted it to be something that the writer could quickly see the results of what they had done and not feel that it was mediated by someone,” Greenwald said.
Also, there’s no comment section because she didn’t want participants to be concerned with criticism, negative feedback or political commentary.
“It’s a site that’s decidedly not social media,” she said.
Board member Juli Duvall consulted Greenwald on the project as it came together. One of the things that stands out about it to her is how it meets people where they are.
“I think it gives people an opportunity to visit and live in that space, see what it’s all about, and not feel like they need to do something right away,” she said. “They can absorb the information, they can think about it some more, and maybe come back later and write their story.”
Evelyn Richard is glad she got to be the one to write her husband’s story for the site.
“It was just important for me to express his unconditional love for me, to share that,” she said.
She’s also grateful she kept those love letters; her own archive of her husband’s affections.
“I can’t overemphasize how important it is just to write things down.”
WhoWeLostKY’s founder Martha Greenwald plans to publish many of these stories as an anthology in the near future. She also wants to do a similar project on the national level, so that residents of every state can share the stories of people lost to the pandemic.