Families mourn as U.S. surpasses 500,000 COVID-19 deaths

BOSTON — For the families of the victims, the United States’ COVID-19 death toll is personal.

As President Joe Biden commemorated more than 500,000 lives lost to coronavirus Monday, Susan Phillips, whose parents died of the virus six days apart, felt overwhelmed with a common sadness, but also a solidarity.

“It’s unbelievable to think we’ve lost this many lives to COVID. It’s surreal,” Phillips said by Zoom Monday. “Just knowing that there are others out there that have experienced this gives me courage, a lot of courage and a lot of strength to know that I’m not alone.”

Phillips’ parents, Merilyn, 79, and Jim Holleran, 83, had lived in Cambridge and raised their kids there, but had most recently been living together at assisted living community Benchmark Senior Living at Waltham Crossings.

Merilyn was taken to Mount Auburn Hospital in March for what was believed to be the flu, pneumonia and sepsis. She was recovering at Park Avenue Health Center in Arlington and had planned to reunite with her husband when she tested positive for COVID-19. It is unclear where she contracted the virus.

As Merilyn’s health declined, Jim’s did too, but must faster. A universal coronavirus test for all residents at the Waltham facility showed Jim was also positive. Jim was taken to Newton-Wellesley Hospital, where one nurse held his phone so his daughters could speak to him, as another nurse held his hand as he took his final breath.

Six days later, a priest administered Merilyn’s last rites at her bedside as her family listened on speaker phone. She died hours later.

“Unbelievable what kind of parents I had. They were such amazing individuals. They had so much love for each other and so much love for us and their grandchildren that they were able to see,” Phillips said. “It’s been a journey since they passed away trying to adjust to life without them.”

As she and her sister prepare for their first birthdays without their parents and the anniversaries of their deaths, Phillips is urging others to take the virus seriously and to get vaccinated. Phillips received her first shot last week.

“Just standing in the line with all the people, I had to keep myself from getting upset,” Phillips said. “Knowing I lost my parents to it just made me know I have to do this. I have got to do this.”

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