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A year ago, Kerstin lost her 83-year-old father to COVID-19.

“I’m sure he knew we were there,” he said, telling DW about his final days in a hospital bed. “Even if I can only caress her forehead with my gloved hand.”

Kerstin lives in Düsseldorf — 600 kilometers (about 370 miles) from her parents, who are based in Berlin. Despite the transmission of the virus and strict social distancing restrictions, the hospital called to say a final visit was possible. For Kerstin, the eldest daughter, the choice was clear.

“At least I want to say goodbye to my father,” he said. With his son, he got into his car and drove to Berlin to spend 10 minutes with him. “We faced each other in plastic,” he recalls. His father died the next day.

He had been taken to hospital for tuberculosis and only contracted the coronavirus later, presumably from the doctors who treated him. Now he is one of 100,000 Germans – according to figures from the Robert Koch Institute for Disease Control – who have since officially died of the disease. Memories of Kerstin invite laughter and tears, as she recalls her father’s life and the randomness of his death.

Caregivers also suffer.

Nurses have struggled in a pandemic, seeing people on ventilators with their deteriorating health. “We were all scared to death,” nanny Rita Kremers told DW.

One of his colleagues died of the virus in the ICU, he said, six weeks after infection. “It really hits you when it’s someone you know who dies,” he said.

Commemorating the death of COVID

Germany has held an official commemorative event to honor the death of COVID-19, with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier meeting with the families of the victims in April. At that time, the death toll was just over 70,000. A few weeks later, he made a statement when the number rose to 80,000.

“The burden of this pandemic is tiring and we are struggling to find the right way forward. That’s why we need to pause for a moment,” he said at the time.

Other communities have found their own ways to mark personal and national tragedies, with some cities planting memorial trees in graves for their dead.

“The sympathies of the whole city go out to all those left behind and especially those who were unable to be with their loved ones in their final moments,” Stephan Keller, mayor of Düsseldorf, wrote in a message at one of the commemorative events.

Graph showing COVID cases and deaths in Germany since March 2020

Experts have helped people to face death and dying.

“We should not only think about the 100,000 people who died, but also those who died of loneliness in the first wave. Or those who died from cancer treatment had to be postponed,” Dirk Pörschmann, director of the Museum of Cemetery Culture in downtown Kassel, told DW.

“This has to be handled very sensitively. It’s about upholding one’s dignity after death,” said Dietmar Preissler, director of collections at Bonn’s Haus der Geschichte, which has been collecting pandemic-related items for the museum.

The helplessness of the funeral director

Fabian Lenzen, a fifth-generation administrator in Berlin, recalls “a great sense of helplessness” in the early months of the pandemic. He had to work carefully with those who died from the virus, but “reasonable protective clothing” made the risk “manageable,” he said.

The pandemic has expanded its role in running a funeral home.

“How do I deal with family members? What’s possible and what’s not? How do I tell them it’s impossible to say goodbye,” said Lenzen. “We are not ministers. But we have filled that role even more simply by doing our normal secularization work.”

Individual tragedy, felt by everyone

Those who do have a pastoral role, such as the evangelical bishop of Hanover, Petra Bahr, face these questions on a regular basis.

Each death is “on the one hand history and on the other a shortened life,” he said, describing the rising number of COVID deaths as “outrageous.”

“We’re almost used to taking notes quietly,” Bahr said. “Numbers don’t die. People die.”

Even as death touches more and more people—everyone from pregnant women to young fathers, he says—”it seems less and less appealing to us, even as this death is connected with more and more consequences, and more misery, suffering and destroying life.”

Historians like Preissler think the pandemic will have long-lasting effects on the country. Just like the Black Death in the Middle Ages or the 1918 flu pandemic, COVID-19 “will also affect society,” he said.

For all the losses, the cold reality is that there are more deaths to come. As Germany mourns its 100,000 deaths, it is also bracing for a long winter and a fourth wave of infections.

This article has been translated from German

Edited by: Richard Connor

Correction, November 25, 2021: An earlier version of this article misspelled Dirk Pörschmann’s name. DW apologizes for the mistake.

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