The hardest part was not being able to properly say goodbye. As Kristin Urquiza's father, Mark, neared the end of his three-week battle with COVID-19, Urquiza and her family spent 10 hours trying to get in touch with him at the overwhelmed Arizona hospital where he had been admitted ("I aged 10 years in that 10 hours," she says). All she wanted to do was hear his voice one more time. To let him know that she was rooting for him. To tell him she loved him. By the time she got a hold of him on FaceTime from her home in California, he was intubated and placed in a medically-induced coma, unable to speak. Instead of being surrounded by family and friends, he was surrounded by humming machines.
When the reality of her father's final moments settled in, Urquiza did the only thing in her power at that time: tried to bring him comfort. Via FaceTime calls that a nurse facilitated, Urquiza read him special messages from family and friends to remind him of the vibrant community he loved so much and played his favorite songs (as Urquiza recalls the events nearly a year later, she wears his 1972 Rolling Stones T-shirt). On June 30, 2020, five days after being admitted to the ICU, 65-year-old Mark Urquiza became one of the 600,000 Americans and counting who would lose their lives to COVID-19.
As she received condolences from family and friends in the days following his death, Urquiza was filled with a mixture of grief and anger—not just about losing her father, but about the lack of responsibility the federal and state government took for the lives it endangered through premature openings and unclear guidelines on how to minimize risk, especially for Black and brown communities that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. She suspected she wasn't the only one who felt this way. Urquiza remembers a moment earlier on in the pandemic when she thought to herself, if this doesn't go right, it's going to be my family that's impacted first. It was like a premonition. So on July 8, 2020, the day of her father's funeral, she decided to share his story in an effort to prevent this from happening to other families.
Urquiza utilized her background in public policy and environmental advocacy to develop Marked By COVID, a nonprofit that "promotes truth, science, and COVID justice." Since the organization's founding by Urquiza and her partner Christine Keeves a year ago today, Urquiza has watched her Honest Obituary go viral, spoken at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), quit her full-time job as the deputy director of an environmental nonprofit, and led the organization's advocacy efforts at the federal and local level. This includes fighting for the establishment of a permanent COVID-19 memorial day, creating an online community for grieving Americans who have lost a loved one to COVID-19, and, most importantly, exposing the truth about the country's pandemic response.
"That's been a big thing for me since the very beginning," Urquiza, 40, tells Marie Claire. "I have said, 'I want to make sure that we tell our children and grandchildren what happened. The real truth.' I think we owe future generations the gift of our wisdom about what happened, and how they can potentially respond in ways that have better outcomes."
Marked By COVID currently has chapters in Arizona (the strongest, given Urquiza's roots), California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas, New York, and Missouri. In the organization's second year, Urquiza hopes to build chapters in at least half the states across the country. The goal is to build community while working with state governments to ensure that rescue and recovery funds are centering the needs of the people who have been most harmed both socially and economically by the pandemic. That looks different for people depending on the state and region they live in.
One of the biggest challenges over the past year has been gaining the support of philanthropic partners that have historically contributed to non-advocacy COVID response efforts, like raising money for food banks. Eventually, Urquiza plans to scale the nonprofit by evolving it from volunteer-based to paid staff, and reaching out to funders like The Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. According to Urquiza, the organization currently has a core team of 15 volunteers, an activist base of about 1,000 people who play a variety of roles, and 100,000 people who engage with the organization through its social channels, mailing lists, and local hubs.
Needless to say, Urquiza never envisioned herself in this role and often finds herself having to choose between being an activist and a professional. A year ago, she was climbing the corporate ladder in the environmental nonprofit world. Today, Urquiza says she identifies more as an activist than ever before and believes she's found her calling. She plans to lead the organization for the foreseeable future, though she understands it's about more than her and her dad's story, and is open to having other people in the driver's seat.
The unfortunate reality is that millions of people have experienced similar traumas throughout the pandemic, which has exacerbated our country's mental health crisis. As society returns to a sense of "normalcy," grieving Americans are left wondering what "normal" will look like for them without their loved ones. Urquiza, like so many other Americans, says she won't be able to fully process her grief until the truth is documented. That's why Marked By COVID is calling for a nonpartisan commission to investigate the government's responsiveness and preparedness for the pandemic. The organization recently wrote a letter to the Biden administration asking to meet and discuss the commission. On the one-year anniversary of her dad's death, Urquiza followed up with the Biden administration as a way to commemorate, memorialize, and honor her father. As of press time, the organization has not received a response.
"[The nonpartisan commission and the official COVID-19 memorial day] are so tied to my loss and my grief that until I see those through, that is my [healing] process," explains Urquiza. "To ultimately make sure that my dad's death and the deaths of 600,000 plus others were not in vain."
On her worst days, when it all still doesn't feel real, Urquiza leans on her partner, family, and friends, as well as the community she's created. Challenging a country's response to grief while actively managing your own is a messy and complicated balancing act. But Urquiza reminds herself of the way her father moved about the world and channels him in her work. The guy who always had something nice to say about everyone. The guy who created space for people who didn't always fit in. A community builder.
"We've all been marked by COVID in one way or the other," says Urquiza. "What a beautiful tribute to my dad to be able to ensure that the next first-generation Mexican American immigrant is not set up to fail like he was."