Grief is the natural human response to loss. People who don’t care about other people don’t grieve. People who don’t know love are walled off from grief. People who love carry the burden of grief. This is hard. It is tempting to build a wall against loss– particularly when it is not our own personal loss, but someone else’s– but that only lessens our innate humanity. To be truly and deeply human is to grieve. The question is how to grieve in a way that does not crush or overwhelm us, and opens us to loss in a manner that can lead to renewal and hope. None of us can continue living without some shard of hope, however slender. It is actually something of a miracle how much loss and catastrophe people can and do endure.
After over 600,000 deaths in America from Covid and millions more worldwide, I find it striking that there is not more expression of collective grief. Perhaps we are all too numb, or still in too much denial. The death toll in America from Covid is 50% more than all the lives lost in all of World War II, and we have national holidays and many other ceremonies and remembrances to honor those war dead. As yet there is nothing comparable to honor the Covid dead (though in time there may be). It seems there is something about this pandemic that we shy away from as a society, as though turning aside will insulate us from our deep feeling about it. This is neither healthy nor good. Grief requires ceremony, public and private ritual, and an emotional receptacle for us to safely weep. But when there are factions of society who still claim that the media has exaggerated the dangers of this disease, or claim (still) that the whole thing is some kind of hoax, we cannot come together and mourn the way we did after 9/11 or after a hurricane or other natural disaster.
I wake up in the morning sometimes and feel disoriented, as though some important piece of the world I have known has been spirited away and I don’t know where I am. Now that large numbers of little children are starting to fall ill and even die of Covid, this feeling of being lost has gotten stronger. Children are our future– creating and caring for them is after all one of the main purposes for our lives as adults. When we combine these human losses with the fires, floods, and droughts that signal the deep distress of the planet itself, we have to ask: how much loss can we endure before we freeze up and cease to feel anything at all?
As much as I find it painful to grieve– especially since it goes along with a feeling of profound helplessness to do anything about all of this– I feel that I must stay connected to the sadness as a way of staying connected to my basic humanity. It is small comfort to acknowledge that human beings have endured worse– think of the Great Death in medieval Europe that wiped out a third of the entire population, or the Holocaust of World War II, in which millions died. I read that, in Germany, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust. I have always found that impressive, that the country responsible for such death now forbids the perpetrators’ descendants from denying what happened.
But just because as a species we have endured and survived worse does not let us off the hook from embracing the fullness of this current pain. It is something I feel we all must do, to whatever extent we can. Providing a crucible for this is one of the more necessary functions of religious institutions; but even for the many people these days who do not profess any religion, discovering a crucible in which to burn away the sorrow is necessary.
All of this brings back memories of the Vietnam War for me, which raged when I was young. I had friends who died in that war; the death toll was well over 50,000. Looking back from a vantage point 50 years later, and comparing what was going on then to what is happening now, I suspect that often when a society is in crisis, ignorance and denial rise up to hold the pain of it all at arm’s length. That was true for the Vietnam War as well. It wasn’t until the Vietnam Memorial was built, with the name of every soldier who died etched in stone, that we could fully grasp what happened. I have read that during the Spanish flu of 1918-19, the country’s leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson, spoke little of the death and dying (even though it was many times worse than our pandemic today). Then, as now, there were efforts to get people to wear masks, and many refused and organized anti-masking demonstrations.
Eventually, we will grieve, and in doing so recapture our sense of common humanity. And then life will go on. Though I believe that, it is small comfort to me now. Mostly I grieve privately, or in conversation with a few close friends. Back during the Vietnam War, as a kind of black humor, I used to say that there are two ways that humanity learns– the easy way and the hard way– but that most of the time there is only one way: the hard way.
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