As the body count continues to rise, a shaken nation is struggling to cope in the wake of the mass deaths sweeping the world population. With no concrete figures available at this early stage, experts estimate at least 250,000 U.S. citizens have died in the last month alone, with death tolls across the globe reaching into the millions.
The wave of deaths has left a brutal aftermath, rocking survivors with feelings of loss and horror, traumatizing the American cultural landscape to its core and leaving behind emotional devastation some say may take years to heal.
What's worse, experts say, the crisis shows no signs of letting up any time soon.
"Oh, my God," sobbed Edina, MN resident Elizabeth Kendrick, 42, whose father, retired insurance actuary Gilbert Ploman, 68, lost his life last Thursday at Shady Villa Nursing Home. "He was a good man, a kind man who never did anything to deserve this terrible fate. Why did something like this have to happen? Oh, God, why?"
As wrenching as Kendrick's grief is, she is just one of the countless Americans who feel the anguish that continues to tear the country apart. Across the nation, in millions of homes in thousands of cities, similar scenes played out, as survivors gathered to mourn, pray, and somehow pick up the pieces while attempting to make sense of it all.
In Fargo, ND, Tom Blake, 89, attended the funeral of his wife Edith, who died of a brain tumor Thursday night. In Augusta, ME, family members broke down in tears, overwhelmed by news of the hang-gliding death of 26-year-old outdoorsman Lance Blaine. And in Cicero, IL, no explanations could comfort the family of accidental auto-erotic-asphyxiation victim Bob Carpenter. Everywhere, those left behind comforted each other as best they could, looking for some kind of hope.
"This epidemic knows no bounds, follows no common denominators, and crosses all demographic lines without impunity," said Harvard University's Gregory Jameson. "Although senior citizens and the terminally ill have seemed to suffer the most casualties, this syndrome does not discriminate. Rich and poor, young and old, people of all races, creeds and backgrounds imaginable have succumbed to its relentless advance."
"We are, all of us, at risk," Jameson said, "and medical science is powerless to stop it."
As devastating as the crisis is here at home, it may be worse overseas. World Health Organization officials are reporting similar death rates across the globe, with widespread casualties reported from as far away as Somalia, Borneo, Brazil, Malaysia and Luxembourg.
In the wake of such suffering, there is no way to adequately explain the tragedy. Yet the seemingly random nature of the mass deaths has made them even harder for the survivors to understand.
"In a situation like this, it's only natural to want to assign blame," said Dr. Frederick MacDougal of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, who recently lost a third cousin to a degenerative nerve disorder. "But the disturbing thing about this case is that no one factor is at fault. People are dying for such a wide range of reasons—gunshot wounds, black-lung disease, falls down elevator shafts—that we have been unable to isolate any single element as the cause."
"No one simple explanation can encompass the enormous scope of this problem," MacDougal added. "And that's very difficult for most people to process psychologically."
As experts continue to struggle for a solution, the nation is left to cope with the crisis one day at a time. But as it stands, the death rate is so high that most of the resources of the world's funeral homes are being called upon to deal with the vast quantities of bodies. Virtually every mortician in the nation is currently employed in some capacity to meet the demand, and more corpses are arriving daily. The cost of the non-stop interments exceeds billions of dollars each year.
As more people succumb each day, hospitals and doctors are finding themselves on 24-hour call. Taxed to the limit, the nation's health-care infrastructure is proving inadequate to handle the needs of sick and dying patients. And though sales of health aides and pharmaceuticals have skyrocketed, nothing has stemmed the tide.
Despite efforts to keep pace with the death toll, for now, all the nation can do is watch and wait. Since the crisis began, a vast majority of Americans have lost at least one family member, close friend, co-worker, distant relative, neighbor or peripheral acquaintance, or know someone who has. Yet even for the lucky few who remain unscathed, the fear remains.
"Our family has been spared so far, but for how long?" asked mother of four Karen Beemis, of Scottsdale, AZ. "Every night I lay awake in bed worrying and thinking, 'This is going to get one of us someday, too. Who will be the first? Grandma? Grandpa? My great-uncle Ted in Michigan?' There's just no way of knowing."
Meanwhile, as the world continues to grapple with this seemingly unstoppable threat, the deaths—and the sorrow, fear and pain they have wrought—continue.
As Margaret Heller, a volunteer at a clinic in Baltimore put it, "We do everything we can. But for most of the people we try to help, the sad truth is it's only a matter of time."