COVID-19

What Are We To Do With All This Grief?


Long before the pandemic hit, we were already a country in mourning.



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Words are my tools. I grasp the universe in sentences and paragraphs, like laying bricks. A writer’s brain—or, at least, this writer’s brain—is a warehouse of language, the sounds and shapes of words piled high, shifting and moving and filling empty spaces, pulled as from catalog drawers. When words fail me, it’s an undoing.

I do not know how to talk about this grief. This American grief that I now carry in my heart, in my bones, in every cell and sinew of my being. This grief with which I wake up and go to sleep, this grief that has caught me, some nights, on the way back from the bathroom. It’s too big for me to frame, too vast for me to organize. It’s been overflowing the banks of each and every day since March 13, when the nation began to shut down and then looked up to see that we were dying.

I have not yet lost anyone to COVID-19, though I did, perhaps, almost lose myself. I fell ill on March 18, went into isolation, and stayed there until May 31. My symptoms were never such that I required hospitalization, but for 11 long weeks, neither could I shake them. One night in particular, sleeping alone in the bed that my husband had had to vacate for his own safety, I sat bolt upright, gasping for air, as if raised from the dead. The grief for those weeks is not a thing I’ve begun to understand, much less find words for.

But like everyone who has lived with or died from this cataclysm, my own illness was a single brushstroke on a canvas of pain that has stretched higher and farther every day. Watching the world come undone on an old laptop, I spent many of those isolated days crying, all the various ways that a person can cry—quietly, or with an abundance of snot, or sobbing, keening, longing for arms around me. For indeed, whether in isolation or not, our necessary distance from each other is its own source of grief. Our very skin mourns.

And now it’s been seven months. Two hundred and twenty-two days, as of this column’s run-date, but tomorrow it will be 223, and then 224, and on and on and on—past the election that can feel like our only path to deliverance, past Inauguration Day, which hints at deliverance itself, on and on. We have been dying, and we are dying, and we will continue to die, abandoned by a president and a majority party that not only left us to die, not only prevented our rescue, not only failed to comfort us in our howling grief, but has actively and knowingly spread the agent of our death, at rallies and at parties and in Senate hearings engineered to strip us of access to medical care. How do we sketch with words the grief of knowing that we are so little valued, our precious lives meaningless to so many whose task it is to value us?

On Memorial Day weekend, Boston public radio hosted Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s complete cello suites “as a memorial for those we’ve lost in the pandemic and a tribute to the resilience of our communities.” I tuned in from Chicago and turned my speaker toward the window, toward the early summer day, with vaulting blue skies and warmth I hadn’t felt since the summer before, toward my neighbors. We had lost just shy of 100,000 people at that point, and Yo-Yo Ma and the powers that be at WGBH had grasped what no one in our national leadership had—that we were a people in desperate need of comfort. Since that act of grace, we’ve lost another 122,000 souls.

I’ve stopped crying quite so much. I imagine you have, too. Humans can only move about with a sheen of salt on our cheeks for so many months before we begin to acclimate. There’s dinner to make, and Zoom meetings to unmute, and everyone’s remote classrooms just crashed, none of which matters, and all of which is half-assed, but no part of which allows time for yet more tears.

We grieve even our inability to grieve. “Ritual creates space for us to have the feelings we don’t usually have permission to have,” says Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, “but the nature of this pandemic is that we’re required to not be together.”

“We’re each in our own little bubbles, doom-scrolling, and when you [attend a funeral or memorial] via Zoom it doesn’t feel real, it doesn’t feel connected … It’s so much to process. We need to be able to name and re-name the ways in which this is a massive trauma, and it’s a massive trauma that’s still going on.”

I scroll through Faces of COVID; hold myself quiet when NPR runs obituaries; watch closely when MSNBC’s Chris Hayes shares stories of some of the luminous beings we’ve lost in this unnecessary nightmare. I listened, as best I could, when the pharmacy tech with whom I’ve shared many happy conversations about hairstyles and parties told me that she’d lost her mother, her brother, and several friends. Her father, she said, had been hospitalized too, but had not, thank God, succumbed. She felt fortunate to have been able to show him a picture on her phone of her mother’s body as it was taken away

We are marked, we are scarred, we are scared, and we are so very, very sad. Each of us – even those intent on performing a kind of cruel invincibility – is dancing with death, locked in its embrace and responding to its omnipresence, even if only by denying it has any presence at all. We are a generation, several generations, who will live the rest of our days under this shadow, this American grief running alongside the blood in our veins.

And lest we forget for a moment, for the span of a heartbeat – the grief we carry is not, in the end, just that of a people torn asunder by a virus. We also grieve the loss of Ahmaud Arbery, of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, all lost to the bottomless cruelty of a state predicated on the dehumanization of Black people, a community that is in turn mourning countless deaths that white America doesn’t even know to name. We grieve the shattering of lives by sexual assault that has gone unanswered, has indeed been rewarded, with seats in the Oval Office and on the Supreme Court. We grieve for our air and our water, our very future on this planet, so abused and violated by powerful forces who want only to increase their own wealth. We grieve for hunger and homelessness and whole communities of Black and brown and Native peoples, the systemic oppression of whom has meant that the virus has cut through them like a scythe.

Bless the souls who have taken it upon themselves to try to help us carry the uncarryable. The musicians and artists who have tried to channel and honor our pain; the ad hoc efforts like Faces of Covid; the organizations and professionals who have produced guides and gathered links and offered suggestions.

Bless them all. It’s not enough. It cannot be enough. It would not even be enough if the leaders of this nation, so intent on hiding and ignoring and denying our suffering, were to acknowledge it, in any way, not least because we know that they’re to blame for it. Not for the virus, but for their failure to confront it, to give us tools to combat it, to even see our humanity. There is no comfort to be sought or found among their numbers.

Like so many, my hopes are pinned to a Joe Biden victory on November 3rd, and a peaceful transfer of power. Neither is certain, but we’re human; we must place our hopes somewhere.

But even if Biden should be safely sworn in as our next president, and even if no fresh horrors arise, yet and still, we will continue to lose fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and grandfathers and grandmothers and friends and beloveds and daughters and sons—hundreds and hundreds, every day.

I don’t know how to write about this grief, how to talk about it, how to give it shape and form. Words fail me. I am undone.

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