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Remembering The Utahns We’ve Lost: Ken Kirkman

Karen and Ken Kirkman. (Lindsay Salazar)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – “Due to coronavirus restrictions” is likely a phrase no one expected to write in their loved ones’ obituary this year.

But day after day, Utah families are having to plan limited funeral services or postpone memorials altogether because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We couldn’t have a funeral,” Kortnie Aldous said of laying her father, Ken Kirkman, to rest. “We could only have a graveside service and we could only have 20 people at that graveside service. And we had to social distance and wear masks.”

But Kirkman’s friends and neighbors made it clear they would have been there if they could.

Hundreds of people lined the one-mile stretch between the mortuary and the cemetery.

Hundreds lined the street leading to the cemetery where Ken Kirkman was buried. (Trisha Terry)

“It was so moving,” Aldous said. “They had flags and balloons and we could just feel so much love from them and for my dad. It was really a beautiful sight.”

Beautiful, but not at all how the family ever expected they had to say goodbye to their father and grandfather.

“He was the coolest grandpa,” said Aldous. “He would do anything for his grandkids.”

At 74, Kirkman was more than just a kid at heart. He was one of the kids.

You could even catch him on the popular social media app TikTok dancing and singing along with the teens.

“At Sunday dinners we could never find my dad because he was either downstairs playing pool with the kids or outside in the yard taking them for rides or playing baseball with them,” Aldous said. “He was never with the adults. He was always with the kids.”

Kirkman, who was in good health, even helped coach his grandson’s little league football team.

“He was the grandpa coach,” Aldous said.

Ken Kirkman helped coach his grandson’s football team.

It was late April when Kirkman and his wife Karen started feeling sick. Karen had the first symptoms.

“It was gastrointestinal. It was never a shortness of breath. Never anything respiratory,” Aldous said. “We were really shocked when they tested positive.”

Within a week both Ken and Karen were in the ER.

“They took them straight to the ICU because their oxygen saturation was so low,” Aldous said.

It wasn’t long before Karen started to improve but her husband remained critical.

“In the middle of the night they called me and they say, ‘We’re so sorry but we do need to intubate your dad and put him on a ventilator,’” said Aldous as she described one of the hardest moments of the ordeal. “So I got to talk to him one last time before they intubated him and I just expressed my love to him and I told him he’s been the best dad, the best grandpa, the best person I know and that we loved him and we would be there with him.”

But Aldous couldn’t be there with him. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, no one could visit Ken or Karen in the hospital.

“One of the beautiful parts of this story is that because my mom had the virus, she got to go down to his hospital room,” she said. “They would wheel her down every day and she got to sit with him and hold his hand and talk to him so we feel blessed for that.”

After 12 days in the hospital, Karen Kirkman was released. Aldous took her home from the hospital and then got a call saying all of her father’s organs were shutting down.

“I feel like he was waiting for her. To know that she was home and that she was safe,” said Aldous.

Ken and Karen Kirkman grew up five houses away from each other. They were high school sweethearts and married for more than 50 years. Aldous called her parents “soulmates.”

Karen and Ken Kirkman were married for over 50 years.

It was difficult to watch her parents be apart from each other as her dad passed on.

“The most cruel part of this whole situation is that my mom was home by herself,” Aldous said. “She was still shedding the virus so we couldn’t go over and be with her when he passed.”

But Aldous took comfort knowing her father was not alone.

“The nurses, the doctors were amazing,” she said. “They stayed with him all night. He was never alone. They held his hand and they had an iPad so we could Facetime him and we all got to say goodbye to him.”

More than a month later, Karen Kirkman was still fighting to get back to full health. The family doesn’t know where she or Ken caught the virus.

“They said they needed to run into the store, just for one thing,” Aldous said. “My dad went and grabbed it and my mom stood in line at the self-checkout. She said no one was social-distancing, no one was wearing masks and that was really the only place that they picked it up.”

Losing her father — and knowing she could have lost her mother as well — has made Kortnie Aldous even more cautious of COVID-19 than she was before.

A soldier hands the U.S. flag from Ken Kirkman’s casket to Karen Kirkman. (Trisha Terry)

“I sometimes see older people out without a mask in the grocery store or wherever,” she said. “It breaks my heart. I mean, when you’ve seen somebody who’s been intubated and they can’t respond and they’re on a ventilator fighting for their life, it’s heartbreaking.”

Though his life was cut short, Ken Kirkman left a lifetime of memories behind.

“He was this incredible artist and he would make these fantastic pinatas for the kids,” she said. “Years ago they used to break them open because they were full of candy but in the last three to four years, I think the grandkids started to realize how much time and effort went into creating those pinatas, so they kept them.”

Aldous now has a basement filled with those memories. Memories she and her children will cherish forever.

“He loved people but he really loved his family,” she said.

By May 8, the day Ken Kirkman died, Utah had lost 61 people to COVID-19. Now, the death toll has more than doubled.

While health officials cannot list their names, KSL wants to make sure we remember each one as a name, with a story and a family left behind.

KSL and our partners at KSL.com, KSL Newsradio and the Deseret News are honored to share their stories as we come together as a state to remember the Utahns we’ve lost.

If you’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19 and would like to help us pay tribute to them, email us at COVID@ksl.com.

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