More than 1,000 Manitobans have died from COVID-19.
Many of these people died alone, with goodbyes mediated by the glass of a window or the screen of an iPad. Pandemic restrictions have also disrupted funerals and celebrations of life; the traditional ways in which we mourn — and honour — those we’ve lost have not been available to us.
Those who died came from all walks of life and from all corners of the province. They are more than a stark number. They are mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, aunties, uncles, friends and colleagues.
They had full lives. They were loved. They should be remembered.
And so, inspired by a project in the New York Times, we asked Free Press readers to share the things that remind them of their loved ones lost to COVID-19, the things that keep them close. A cake recipe. A sleeping bag. In a sign of the times, a Facebook post.
Here are the remembrances of 14 Manitobans who lost loved ones to the virus. Among them, an opa with a sense of humour, a nonno with a sweet tooth, a mother who liked to take her sleeping bag to the lake so she could sleep on the porch and listen to the birds. A grandmother who never got to meet her grandchild.
This will be a living memorial that we will be adding to; you can contribute your own story and photos here.
"Like many others, I’m saddened that in my mom’s last year, so much of it was spent alone — that the usual family get-togethers passed us by, her last Christmas was spent in hospital, and after her passing, no opportunity to celebrate her life. We followed all the rules, but there was no reward at the end.
"That’s why I appreciate this opportunity to remember all that was good about my mom. She was one of the toughest people I know. In the last 20 years, she’d survived major colon cancer surgery, breast cancer mastectomy, a broken hip and Takotsubo (broken heart) syndrome after her son’s suicide. But she couldn’t beat the complications arising from COVID-19.
"Every family birthday was marked by my mom’s famous ‘inch’ birthday cake, so named because it was so good that everyone would ‘inch’ away at it until it was gone. The secret was her marble buttercream frosting, and I share with you a copy of the well-used recipe in her handwriting. I miss my mom’s resilience, her wit and humour, her spunk and her ability to always look on the bright side."
— Shelley Morris remembers her mother, Jean Morris, who died on Feb. 12, 2021, at the age of 86.
"My mom was one of the first to die from COVID last March. Being pregnant, I couldn’t check on her while she was ill, attend the ambulance call when she was found, view her body, nor hold a memorial because of the danger. She died on the Monday. Friday was my first ultrasound for the grandchild she wanted more than anything in the world. I spent the appointment alone and sobbing uncontrollably. I had planned to tell her that evening, once I knew the pregnancy was viable after three miscarriages.
"She was cremated that Saturday, my birthday, with a copy of the ultrasound captioned: ‘Dear mom, you’re a grandma.’"
— Megan Collison remembers her mother, Elaine Armstrong-Collison, who died on March 23, 2020, at the age of 67.
"For me COVID is too real: my mom acquiring it at the Vic, me taking it home and giving it to my family, my daughter, an ICU fellow in Vancouver, working ridiculous hours and intubating COVID patients, and my dear niece who works at Health Sciences Centre as a health-care aide on a unit that has had several outbreaks.
"The object I have of my mom’s is an old sleeping bag that she patched again and again with flannelette remains from all the pyjamas and blankets she made for her grandchildren. She used to bring it to the lake so she could sleep on the porch and listen to the birds.
"For me, it represents a resourceful woman who never wasted anything, as she said she was from the ‘spatula’ generation. It represents how she could always make you feel better with her warmth, laughter and kindness. It also symbolizes her love of nature that she shared with me. I miss her every day."
— Lilian Bonin remembers her mother, Christiane Bonin, who died on Nov. 10, 2020, at the age of 89.
"Music and dance were probably two of the more important things in our dad’s life. In the early 1940s, he played violin and mandolin in the Farmer Family band in the Plumas/Gladstone area. In the 1960s, he took up the banjo and played it for the rest of his life. He loved jamming with others when the opportunity arose, and he also played with a couple of different groups for the residents of care homes in the Dauphin area.
"Just as big as playing music was dancing. Dad and mom (Hazel) square and round danced for 45 years, as well as "old time" dancing. Their life revolved around dancing and they travelled near and far to do so. My parents were beautiful dancers who glided over the dance floor.
"Mom and Dad preplanned their funerals. On their headstone, they added ‘Life is a Dance.’ So appropriate. We all envision they’re dancing in heaven now, and mom saying to dad: ‘What took you so long? The dance is starting!’"
— Shelby Neill remembers her father, Elmer Farmer, who died on Nov. 18, 2020, at the age of 97.
"My grandma, Olga Stoneman, lived a full life: in the army in her early years, then settling down in 1947 to marry her husband, Jack. She was a stay-at-home mom who raised four children. She eventually became a grandmother and great-grandmother to many children, and never forgot her Icelandic roots.
"The two food items we could always count on Grandma to make for us were her delicious baking powder biscuits and, at Christmastime, vinarterta. The tradition of this Icelandic cake is carried on with two of Olga’s granddaughters (Teresa and Stacey). Although you’d swear Olga was Ukrainian because of much of her cooking — including amazing borscht — alas she was not. She had the privilege of learning this style of cooking from a neighbour in her early married years, and her family reaped the benefit."
— Stacey Cann remembers her grandmother, Olga Stoneman, who died on Feb. 4, 2021, at the age of 97.
"My mother had been in a care home for the past three years because her dementia was so advanced. The staff were amazing and took such loving care of her (and me!) during the whole ordeal.
"I volunteer a bit with the Alzheimer’s Society, as well as donate. My close friend Lorraine Decock is the director of development there. After my mom died, I had a leaf put up on the wall at the society in memory of her. Lorraine and one of her daughters were so kind to put it up and send pictures, as I couldn’t be there because of the lockdown. I thought it was a special way to commemorate her and support this wonderful society."
— Terry Klan remembers her mother, Jacky Laurendeau, who died on Oct. 23, 2020, at the age of 95 (but, per her obituary, "completely convinced she was 92").
"Our nonno, Angelo Manfredi, suddenly and unexpectedly passed away from COVID-19 at Christmastime. Owing to the pandemic, none of us were able to see him for the past year, which makes this loss even more difficult to bear.
"Nonno Angelo was always a picky eater when we were growing up, but in his older age, he developed quite the sweet tooth. I’m happy that he was able to celebrate his 81st birthday with a giant cake my mom Carol made for him. He definitely enjoyed it. He sure loved his "torta"! Because of the pandemic, his "birthday party" in 2020 was a FaceTime call, with us saying hello and sending ‘tanti auguri’ (best wishes). We weren’t able to share cake and celebrate together, which was tough. I hadn’t seen him in over a year and I truly did not expect to never see him again.
"Unfortunately, that is the way his story ends, but not the way it will be told. We will love and miss him forever. We will always remember his funny sense of humour, his stubbornness, his love of animals and family — and that sweet tooth."
— Connie Manfredi remembers her grandfather, Angelo Manfredi, who died on Dec. 10, 2020, at the age of 82.
"Ted (Teddy Lawrence) Becker was a devoted and loving husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, cousin and friend to many. Ted will be remembered for many things, including the time he and his wife Donna spent in their yard. Ted loved to be in his garden and worked endlessly on the many sprawling, beautiful flower beds. If you were looking for him, he was in the yard, puttering to make everything look perfect. And it always did. From the fish pond to the pathway along the driveway — every space was carefully curated to delight all those that came by.
"In his honour, the family has been painting rocks from his garden to spread joy to many. Ted had an infectious smile and made everyone around him feel special. He is gone but not forgotten."
— The Becker family remembers Ted Becker, who died on Nov. 25, 2020, at age 81.
"I first got to really know Ron in 1990; he had hired me to help in the offices of Elmcrest Furniture Manufacturing. At Elmcrest they made upholstered furniture and sofa beds, like the white fabric-covered chairs and sofas sold at Kern-Hill or the sofa beds and upholstered sets at JS Furniture. One set of chairs was given as a door prize at the citywide United Way garage sale at which Ron and I volunteered.
"Ron loved New York Fries and would often take a break from running errands to get a bag, or he would stop for McDonald’s burgers; in the mornings it was sausage McMuffins. The back of his rent-a-wreck car was filled with empty burger boxes. Clearly, Ron needed a little bit of help getting his life in order. Thirty years later and it was still a challenge for me to get Ron to eat proper square meals.
"During COVID lockdown, I tried to switch up the day-to-day for Ron, who was now living with dementia, and found that baking and cooking different recipes helped. Ron and my brother both loved lemon-flavoured deserts, lemons with fish, and so that became a focus. Lemon chicken, lemon muffins, lemon bundt cake, lemon poppy seed cake, lemon loaf. I had gotten Ron hooked on lemon yogurt and toast in the mornings. So I switched this up and made lemon squares with lemon Jell-O pie filling and yogurt topped with lemon pudding… or lemon squares with lemon Jell-O pie filling and cream cheese with lemon pudding or Cool Whip as a topping..."
— Wendy Bunio remembers her husband, Ronald (Ron) Bunio, who died on Dec. 14, 2020, at the age of 75.
"I lost my dad, Egon Meyer, on Jan. 21, 2021, less than a month before his 91st birthday. We were doing FaceTime calls on the personal care home’s iPad to communicate with each other when I could not visit due to the pandemic. When he was going to pass away from COVID-19, his family was there with him on the iPad. We have not been able to have a funeral but will do a Celebration of Life when it is safe to do so.
"It’s really hard to process a death of a loved one due to COVID or during COVID. We are isolated and trying to process our grief. I still can’t believe my dad is gone. He had survived so much but not this. He loved accordion music and loved to play chess and watch others play chess. He loved his family so much and was there for his grandchildren. Our hearts are hurting. He wanted things for elders in care homes to improve and wanted a larger staff ratio per residents so elders would have improved quality of care and dignity, among other things.
— Vivian Meyer remembers her father, Egon Meyer, who died on Jan. 21, 2021, at the age of 90.
"In 1996, when my parents separated and my father moved to Germany, my opa, Egon Meyer, became my main male role model and father figure. He preached the importance of lifelong learning, acquiring knowledge and developing skills and to never settle.
"My opa was ridiculously funny and although it’s such a cliché to comment on a loved one’s sense of humour, anyone who had the privilege of knowing him can attest that he was one of the funniest people they knew. Everyone adopted him as their opa — his mannerisms, sayings, stories, jokes, are well-known as ‘opaisms.’ He had many skills and talents that ranged from architectural drafting to playing the button accordion, an instrument he cherished deeply and often spoke of how it connected him to his father, who was an even more talented player (in his opinion).
"Simply put, Opa is my hero, and COVID-19 took him away from us too soon. When I hear things like, ‘He lived a long life and had a good run,’ it really minimizes his passing. He still had so much to offer the world and so much wisdom to impart. It’s up to us, now, to carry what we learned from him forward."
— Stephan Geissler remembers his grandfather, Egon Meyer.
"I’d like to honour my mom who died at 69 from COVID. She was in remission from cancer for the last two years and would still be around today.
"She immigrated here at 40 from Hungary with my dad so that me and my brother could have a better life, and we do. She worked hard along with my dad doing custodial work that wasn’t very glamorous to make a living here in Canada and took great pride in her work. She made our house feel like a home and our hearts feel full. Now there is a void that can never be filled.
"On the day that she left us the sun was shining through her window in ICU as if to comfort her when we couldn’t, and it went down with her last heartbeat. Now I can’t help but think that when we feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, like an outstretched arm, it is her way of comforting us through our tears."
— Melinda Homola remembers her mother, Katalin Homola, who died on Jan. 16, 2021, at the age of 69.
The owl in the oak
"Our dad, Lyle Cook, passed away at Maples Personal Care Home. I could express our displeasure with Maples or how the elderly are treated by the system, but that is not what this story is about. The focus is on those good memories that we cherish.
"Our dad was a man of few words who would cite the poem, ‘The wise old owl who sat on the oak / the more he heard the less he spoke / the less he spoke the more he heard /why can’t we all be like that bird?’ Words to live by. We miss him every day."
— Deborah Popovic remembers her father, Lyle Cook, who died on Nov. 7, 2020, at the age of 91.
"My dad died from COVID in Bexhill, on the south coast of England, this New Year’s Eve past. I really wonder at how folks handled the similar circumstances and tragedy of the Spanish flu without the benefit of Zoom calls and Facebook posts. Probably, I suppose, with letters, although the inevitable delays involved in sending, receiving and writing back would have made for some prolonged reflections. Within minutes of posting a tribute to my dad on New Year’s Day, 2021, I was surrounded by comfort and warmth. It’s a curious paradox that in a time of social isolation we have both more time to reflect and the greater technological capacity with which to connect in significant and supportive ways. On a variety of fronts, I think COVID has allowed some of us to be more vulnerable.
"When I poured out my heart this past New Year’s Day, I could not have anticipated the breadth of responses. No funeral would have pulled me down so many rabbit holes of recollection and connection, from friends who knew my father to those that had never met the man yet could see his qualities in me. Having time to reflect and respond to each friend who took the time to reach out brought a level of comfort and closure I would never have guessed at. Maybe certain worldwide events supersede our individual preoccupations and in doing so reinforce our sense of community, of empathy and of the importance of human kindnesses. It’s certainly what I hope we take from the pandemic."
— Ian Smith remembers his father, Derek Smith, who died on Dec. 31, 2020, at the age of 87.
"I am a nurse. While I work in two very different areas, one of my jobs is as an ICU nurse, more specifically I work at HSC MICU (medical intensive care unit). I left my full time position in Nov 2019 for another area of nursing but remained on as a casual nurse.
"The first wave had only a few deaths and hospitals were minimally affected. The second wave was a different story. I clearly remember my first shift in the second wave. I worked an eight-hour night shift. I came on shift and immediately helped a fellow nurse wrap a body. The patient died as a result of COVID. Three hours later I was wrapping the second body, and other death from COVID.
"And so began the new kind of ICU shift.
"Experiencing death in my job is not new. Over the 16 years I worked in ICU, I saw many of my patients die. The difference now was death occurred in that unit every time I worked. These patients died without family, often with only nurse at their side — a nurse wearing full PPE. Nothing in my previous years of nursing prepared me for this new normal.
"I wanted to find a way to remember those individuals. I reached out to a few colleagues and, in December 2020, myself and two ICU nurse colleagues — Zofia Rejewski and Colleen Shepard — made 667 ice lanterns. My goal was to light a candle in each, and remember those individuals who died from COVID. On the evening of Jan. 6, we set up our ice lanterns and lit the candles. The Forks gave us permission to use the path alongside the Human Rights museum. Pandemic restrictions were in place. It was word of mouth; just those walking by got to experience our tribute.
"A gentleman just happened to be walking by that night. He shared with me that he had lost a parent in a personal care home during an outbreak. He was grateful for our display and that brought me to tears."
— Rhonda Heinrichs, ICU nurse, remembers the first 667 Manitobans to die from COVID-19.