Manitoba has reached another grim milestone: 2,000 deaths from COVID-19.
On Thursday, the province’s pandemic death toll reached 2,004, more than two years since the novel coronavirus was first detected in Manitoba.
"My heart goes out, and our thoughts and prayers go out, to the families of those individuals who lost their lives at this time," Premier Heather Stefanson said. "Obviously, we’ve come through this pandemic… We’re making some headway here. I think we’re moving forward in this. I just want to thank, again, all of the incredible health-care workers."
Stefanson and Health Minister Audrey Gordon said the province is open to commemorating the lives lost to COVID-19.
"Every death is an unfortunate death, and I extend my condolences and my sympathies to the family," Gordon said this week, as she encouraged Manitobans to get vaccinated.
"The pandemic has not been kind to Manitobans or to individuals across the country who have lost a family member… Our government is open to any ideas that the family members might have about how we can recognize the loss of their loved ones."
The Progressive Conservative government has faced deep criticism for its handling of the pandemic, most recently for providing less detailed data related to COVID-19.
Meantime, deaths continue to climb.
On average, there have been more COVID-19 deaths this year compared with 2020 or 2021.
In 2020, there was an average of 17.8 COVID deaths per week, while the average was 12.5 in 2021.
In 2022, the average hit 26 deaths per week.
These numbers are not just statistics. They are Manitobans who lived here, raised families here, worked here — and touched the lives of many.
Here, the Free Press looks at the void three Manitobans who died of COVID-19 have left behind.
These are their stories.
More than 250 of Megan Wolff’s loved ones were greeted by handmade angels, each one tied onto a newly-blossoming tree branch, at the beloved teacher’s celebration of life last weekend.
Crafted out of ribbon, lace and other art supplies, 53 memorials were made by students, employees and family members of Strathcona Public School. The guardians decorated the grounds of the St. Norbert Arts Centre.
Anna Robertson, a teacher at the North End elementary school where Wolff started her 10-year career in the Winnipeg School Division, said her friend would have appreciated every angel was imperfect and unique.
"She’s an educator who never lost sight of the humanity of the job. We can get really bogged down in assessments and data and programming and curriculum — and she reminded us that we have to remember the heart of it and the beauty of each person," Robertson said.
“She’s an educator who never lost sight of the humanity of the job." – Anna Robertson
Every cherub was both a tribute to Wolff’s spirituality (she had a personal collection of angels in her home) and a year of her life, which was cut short on Christmas morning. The healthy 53-year-old, who was triple-vaccinated, experienced intense illness following a COVID-19 diagnosis.
The Omicron wave postponed a mass gathering in her honour until spring.
"We did it and it was beautiful and it was everything we wanted it to be, but there was this anxiety that rang through (the planning process)… You don’t want to hold a super-spreader event," said Jennifer Carter, Wolff’s twin sister.
Five months after the sudden death, family members, friends and members of the education community are processing the loss, while coming to terms with the virus nearing an endemic stage.
Carter said it is frustrating to constantly hear the word COVID-19, as well as accounts from people insisting the virus is not a big deal. "You just feel like your heart is breaking again, into a million pieces."
“You just feel like your heart is breaking again, into a million pieces.” – Jennifer Carter
Wolff’s loved ones are grateful for the outpouring of love they have received in recent months, Carter said, adding she is thankful her twin was surrounded by a loving community at every stage in her life.
Not only will there be a flora memorial for the mother of two at the site of her celebration of life, but J.B. Mitchell School — where Wolff began the 2021-22 academic year — is also creating an outdoor tribute. Yellow blooms are being planted as a nod to her favourite colour.
Community members sent handmade cards to the River Heights school for Wolff’s children, Mia and Alex Kirbyson, in early 2022.
Wolff will forever be remembered by her positivity, "amazing smile" and being an incredible mother, teacher and friend, according to her partner, Andy Gow.
"She was so non-judgmental and happy for others’ successes," Gow said.
The two dated for 7 1/2 years, the latter of which were long-distance and thus, involved many phone calls between Winnipeg and Colorado. It was tradition they spent much of Wolff’s summers together, be it on hikes or paddle boards.
In addition to her caregiving nature, Wolff was known as an avid reader, animal lover and outdoorswoman.
One educational assistant who worked alongside Wolff said she fondly remembers the nature walks the two led for students. Kim McNeil said the duo pointed out different plants and animals on their neighbourhood tours.
No matter the location of her classroom, she made all students feel welcome and accepted, McNeil added.
Given public health restrictions have complicated the grieving process, it was a relief to finally gather for Wolff on June 5, said Geoff Kirbyson, father of her children.
It was therapeutic to share stories and learn about the impact Wolff had on so many people, many of whom flew to Winnipeg for the event, said Kirbyson, who maintained a friendship with his former wife after they split following a 17-year relationship.
"The part she would’ve appreciated most — and also what would’ve embarrassed her a little — was the sheer number of people who came out," he said. "It’s a testament to Megan’s impact and her legacy."
“The part she would’ve appreciated most ‐ and also what would’ve embarrassed her a little ‐ was the sheer number of people who came out.” – Geoff Kirbyson
— Maggie Macintosh
Just months before the pandemic reached Manitoba, Kim Kotelo began working as a nurse at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.
Kotelo, who had recently graduated from Red River College Polytechnic, always dreamed of becoming a nurse.
"I think setting positive examples for others and advocating for vulnerable populations is an important aspect of being a nurse and just a good human being," Kotelo wrote to one of her nursing instructors.
"There’s a lot of s——y people in the world and sometimes it only takes one person to change many other negative outlooks. Us, as the new nurses coming in, need to be and continue that positive change and advocate not just for our patients, but all people, everyday."
Turns out, almost all of Kotelo’s nursing career was spent during the pandemic. A career tragically cut short when she was found dead in her apartment April 30, 2021, days after getting sick.
The medical examiner later confirmed she tested positive for COVID-19.
Kotelo was only 26, but will not be forgotten.
In the months after her death, a couple in the community were inspired by a Free Press story about Kotelo, creating an annual memorial award for nurses in her name.
That award, which will see more than $1,000 go to an individual completing their third year at RRC Polytechnic’s bachelor of nursing program, now comes from an endowment fund, so new students will benefit from it in perpetuity.
Earlier this month, a group decided to direct this year’s proceeds from an annual charitable women’s golf tournament at Falcon Lake Golf Course to the fund.
Evelyn Proceviat, Kotelo’s aunt who brought the idea forward to her fellow golfers, said the tournament raised $4,500, and a number of the women donated privately at an information table set up by RRC Polytechnic.
"We’ve held it for 27 years, and through the years we changed it from just being a golf tournament to benefiting different causes," Proceviat said. "We did breast cancer for a few years, then colon cancer. I told them about my niece and said why don’t we honour this program for the nurses and for the people who have passed away?
"It was a beautiful day for golf… It was also a tough day, but a good day to remember her."
"It was a beautiful day for golf… It was also a tough day, but a good day to remember her." – Evelyn Proceviat
Elena Grinshteyn, senior development officer with awards and special initiatives at Red River, said the award "will support so many students."
"Kim’s legacy will support caring and compassionate nursing students with strong work ethic and a true dedication to the care of their patients," Grinshteyn said. "Every year (Kotelo’s mother) and the family will be able to celebrate what Kim brought to the nursing profession for a short, but most meaningful way."
Kotelo’s mother, Eleanor, said she is grateful for all of the support.
"It’s a wonderful tribute to my daughter," she said. "And the tournament was so heart warming. Quite a few of the women golfing were past nurses and present ones, too."
Eleanor said the award was supposed to be $1,000 annually but, with the amount the endowment fund has reached ($68,000-plus), it will likely increase.
"Hopefully, it encourages more people to go into nursing and to apply for this. I know the money comes at the right time. They are broke after three years of school."
Kotelo is survived by her mother, father (Jerry), sister (Shannon), grandmother (Erna Garnett), and several aunts, uncles and cousins.
— Kevin Rollason
Terri Grasby’s dream was to help Indigenous people.
The 63-year-old, who died March 28 due to complications from COVID, spent her life putting those dreams into reality — helping not just family but community and others across the province.
"She was smart as a whip," her daughter, Jaime, recalled recently.
"She would say, you’re doing this, but you could also be doing this and this. She also had a way with words… and she would say she was busier in retirement than in anything else."
"She was smart as a whip." – Jamie, Terri Grasby's daughter
Grasby’s home community was Sagkeeng First Nation. Her first job was as a receptionist at Modern Dairy, but, by the time she retired in her late fifties, she had her certified Aboriginal financial manager designation and was working as the Treaty Land Entitlement Committee of Manitoba’s financial manager.
In between, Grasby also worked at South East Economic Development and the Indian Métis Friendship Centre.
TLEC executive director Chris Henderson worked with Grasby from 2010 until she retired in 2014.
"Yes, it is correct to say that I was stunned when she told me she was retiring," Henderson said.
"Terri was dedicated, loyal and hardworking for the organization and our member First Nations. She was also very proud to speak and converse in her Anishiinaabe (Ojibway) language."
When the group learned of Grasby’s death, even though she hadn’t been with the organization for eight years, they still honoured her passing with a traditional memorial song provided by a Dene drummer at its special meeting March 31.
In Grasby’s career and private life, it didn’t matter whether it was through work or with relatives or friends on the side, she always wanted to help others create businesses and assist people in finding work.
Those businesses and the people she helped are Grasby’s legacy.
At one point, Grasby decided to open a business with her mother at Sagkeeng to be able to spend more time with her. Teeny Bopper restaurant, convenience store and gas bar is still being run by other family members.
"I was eight turning nine and I was working in a restaurant," recalled her daughter Jaime, noting the business had been operated by her mom’s brother until his death, and her mom had been working with her brother’s family to continue running it at the time of her death.
Jaime said there’s a Tim Hortons in Sagkeeng because her mother wrote the business plan, while her brother operates his own construction business because of her. Her mother was also encouraging her to open a craft store on the to-be-redeveloped former Kapyong Barracks land in Winnipeg.
"At Treaty Land Entitlement, she was helping with the changeover of the allocation of reserve land… She worked a full time job, raised kids, helped people along the way," she said. "She definitely had a vision of helping the community."
"She worked a full time job, raised kids, helped people along the way." – Jamie, Terri Grasby's daughter
Jaime said her mother had tuberculosis as a child, and it left her with lasting damage to her lungs. About 10 years ago, Grasby had a kidney transplant.
She said her mother was sick for about a week before she decided to go to hospital because of trouble breathing. Doctors ordered immediate intubation. Grasby continued to deteriorate, and died about three weeks later.
"She was the glue in our family," Jaime said. "Our parents teach us so much, but they forget to talk to you how they have learned to grieve for them."
Grasby is survived by her husband (Douglas), daughter, son (Christopher), three grandchildren, and a sister and brother.
— Kevin Rollason
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.