02:26 - Source: CNN
Easter and Passover celebrations amid social distancing
CNN  — 

David Williams had his first date with his future wife 22 years ago on Easter Sunday. But this Easter, he mourned her loss as he spent the day without her by his side.

Vitalina Williams, 59, died as a result of coronavirus on April 4, her husband said. She worked as a cashier at the Market Basket grocery store in Salem, Massachusetts, and was also employed at the Walmart in Lynn. Vitalina is among the growing number of grocery store workers across the United States who have become infected and died of coronavirus-related causes.

Vitalina came to the United States in the late 1990s from Guatemala to help provide for loved ones back in Central America and for her own economic advancement, her family said. She had no underlying conditions that her family was aware of, her husband said.

“I’ve never known anybody be more loving, more open, more happy than she was,” Williams told CNN. “I never deserved her, but I always wanted to strive to deserve her.” She adored flowers, especially orchids, and she and Williams greatly enjoyed cooking together. For Vitalina, Williams said, it was a joy to send gifts to her siblings and nieces in Guatemala.

Williams last saw his wife when she was on a ventilator in a hospital bed. For comfort, her husband brought along a teddy bear that he had given her as a gift when they were dating, Williams said. Since Vitalina was devoutly religious, Williams requested for a priest to administer her last rites – the prayers given before death. “After I left they (the hospital) would stop all (life) support and let her pass away,” he said.

Williams said that speaking about her to others has been therapeutic, helping him get through a difficult time. He also works at a Market Basket, but in Danvers, and hopes to go back to work soon to keep earning a living and regain some sense of normalcy. He’s been self-isolating for two weeks in his home and has not been tested. He worries about how Vitalina contracted coronavirus. “Did I get it and give it to her?” he asked. “It’s a horrible thought to think of.”

Vitalina and David Williams.

Workers on the frontlines of coronavirus

Grocery store workers and store associates across the United States have been falling ill, with some dying, due to coronavirus. Their typically low-wage jobs put them in close daily contact with others.

In Maryland, a clerk at a Giant Food store who had cerebral palsy died a little over a week ago after contracting coronavirus. Workers at a Chicago-area Walmart have also recently died from coronavirus. Grocery stores, retail chains and warehouses are having a hard time figuring out a way to keep their millions of workers safe.

Some grocery chains have announced protective steps, such as installing acrylic glass shields at counters and cash registers, and designating shopping hours just for the elderly and other high-risk customers.

Vitalina had been employed at the Salem Market Basket for 11 years, said Justine Griffin, a company spokesperson. She last worked at the site on March 26, Griffin said, adding that two other associates at the Salem store have tested positive for coronavirus and have quarantined themselves, as have their close contacts.

“The loss of Vitalina is a tragedy for our entire Market Basket family,” Griffin said. “Our hearts go out to her husband Dave who is also a member of our Market Basket family. We offer our support to her family and coworkers during this difficult time. We have made counseling services available to any colleagues or family members in need.”

Vitalina Williams.

More than 3,000 miles away, Vitalina’s family mourns

As her husband and friends in Massachusetts grieve the loss of Vitalina, her family in Guatemala does the same from afar.

Vitalina was one of 10 siblings from a poor, ethnic Mayan family, her brother, Romeo Jiatz, told CNN. She was about 12 years his senior, and acted like a mother figure as he was the youngest of the siblings. “She protected me, she clothed me, she bathed me,” Jiatz said in Spanish. “She always supported my mother and our siblings economically, too.” Vitalina was the godmother of his three children.

As a woman, Jiatz noted, Vitalina faced extra obstacles in having to take care of her family while studying and beginning to work to earn money for the family at the age of 12. One of her goals in emigrating to the United States was to help her family in the town of Tecpán, Guatemala. When Vitalina left more than two decades ago, Jiatz recalls his elder sister telling her siblings: “Look, we have to fight for a different life because all we are left with in Guatemala is poverty.”

Even as the pandemic overran the United States, Vitalina kept working. “The people who have to put their lives at risk right now, like Vitalina, are the ones who absolutely need that income,” Jiatz said. “This shows that there are two hugely unequal worlds.”

Once Vitalina became a US citizen, Jiatz said, she would travel back home to Guatemala each year for a month’s stay. The family would eagerly await her arrival – and she always managed to bring presents for everyone, even small things like candy or clothing. The last time Jiatz saw his sister was on January 31 in Guatemala, when he remembers they had breakfast together on the day of her birthday. “She was so kind to me, as she always was.”

Vitalina (left) with her mother at her mother's 75th birthday celebration in Guatemala

When Vitalina’s husband informed Jiatz that Vitalina would likely not survive, her family was in shock. “I couldn’t believe it, I truly just could not believe it,” he said. Jiatz hopes to travel to the United States when the pandemic has subsided to collect Vitalina’s remains and bring them home to Guatemala.

“There is so much pain among us siblings,” Jiatz said. “Her wish was always to instill in us the same energy that she had to continue persevering in life.”

Correction: An earlier headline on this story incorrectly stated that Vitalina Williams died on Easter. She died April 4.