a broken heart, in the color blue, spray painted on a grey brick wall


When Our Grief Turns to Despair

The COVID-19 pandemic, which was once marked by waves and spikes in cases, now feels like a metaphor for all that ails American society.

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It’s been a year since I wrote about my bottomless, fathomless, American grief, about my inability to give it shape even as I tried to shape it with words. We’d lost about 220,000 Americans to COVID-19 then, a number that now seems positively bearable compared to the three-quarters of a million who will have died by this week’s end.

If a year ago I found it nearly impossible to find the words for my grief, today I find it nearly impossible to even name whatever it is that I now feel, this thing that is, every day, so different from anything I’ve ever felt. I’ve fashioned a kind of numbness, a dishonesty, a way of slipping through my days without dwelling on—I mean: knowing, I mean: feeling—the fact of more than 1,250 Americans dying every day, some 500 more than the seven-day average with which we were living when I wrote about grief last year. There’s a wall that wasn’t there, one I’ve built with averted eyes and stoppered ears and fingers that navigate away, away, away, because what I feel most clearly today, most sharply, is a kind of whole-body despair that threatens to paralyze me more surely than grief ever has.

The difference, of course, is our numbers. The human mind doesn’t do well with large numbers. of humans. But the COVID-19 pandemic is a story of large numbers, numbers that don’t even do us the courtesy of sitting still but change constantly, each day a new number never before seen in our lifetimes. Last year at this time, the American death toll was roughly equal to the population of Huntsville, Alabama; now it’s about that of Seattle, Washington. We’ve rocketed past Boston, past Nashville, past Washington, D. C.

The difference, of course, is the vaccines. Last October, we could only dream/hope/pray for medical salvation. A dream/hope/prayer that was tightly wound around a dream/hope/prayer that Joe Biden would be elected in November, and January would see a peaceful transfer of power, and some minimal competence and whatever the opposite of sadistic indifference is would return to the White House to lead us out of what we already knew was going to be a dark, deadly winter.

Though some of us had different dreams. Some of us had dreams that wound tightly around a fevered rush toward the nation’s capital, hockey sticks and bear spray in hand, a spittle-flecked and furious push to unwind democracy in favor of the man whose incompetence and sadistic indifference had led to we-may-never-know-how-many of our COVID dead, a death toll which by January 6 had long outgrown Huntsville and was by then a Minneapolis of dead. As if the hydroxychloroquine and bleach had been feints and what we really needed to vanquish the novel coronavirus was full-throated white supremacy, violent misogyny, and a gallows outside the Capitol.

The difference, of course, is that my people are, by and large, no longer dying. My people are vaccinated; my people have worn masks since we had to make them ourselves; my people were consumed with anxiety as we cast our ballots, and wept with relief when Biden won, and wept yet more when trucks carrying the first doses of vaccine left the Pfizer plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan on December 13. COVID killed my mother between the latter two events, but one of her last acts on this earth was to vote against Donald Trump. My mother was my people.

I’m able to fashion this numbness in part because the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died since vaccines became available have felt far removed from me, geographically, philosophically, or in some other way that has allowed me to see them as not my people. I fashion numbness because the emotional distance produced by such me/them divides horrifies me. Because my mother would be ashamed of me. Because the dead are still dead and I want not to be angry with them for their unvaccinated-by-choice deaths, but to mourn them and comfort the loved ones they left behind.

But even as I mourn them, I am angry with the unvaccinated-by-choice dead, these people who, while they were still with us, cared so little for my mother, and possibly your mother, and so many others. That they refused to do the simplest of things—to wear masks, to not congregate, to get vaccinated, to listen to the science, to listen to their neighbors, who were begging them to love us enough to not risk consigning us to horrible, gasping deaths. Having now died their own horrible, gasping deaths, I want to chase them to the gates of heaven and demand an accounting.

A year ago I thought we might still reach the anti-maskers and the anti-vaxxers. I thought there was some magic number of bodies, or shattered health care workers, or shattered health care systems, some magic of some kind, that might force an acknowledgment of error, might break their hearts as mine had broken, might turn around the ship of conspiracy-mongering and lie-telling and allow us to stop dying in such terrible numbers.

I am a good deal angrier with the people who have sold those lies and peddled those conspiracies—but here again my vocabulary fails because it isn’t anger. It’s rage so great it rips air from my lungs toward people with platforms and power who have made the daily choice to lie and lie and lie and are responsible for the deaths of we-may-never-know-how-many Americans and will be responsible for most of the Americans who will die of COVID today and tomorrow and next week and next month because the liars continue to lie.

I fashion this dishonesty because I don’t know how I will ever forgive any of them.

I fashion this dishonesty because I am so afraid.

I am so afraid of so many things. Of a final rupturing of our democracy, of our planet destroyed by our hubris, of an economy gutted and cratered by all those things and hospital bills besides. Of the consequences of all this grief. Of the virus itself. Of its mutations. Of the death that still stalks me and mine around every corner.

I’ve fashioned this numbness, this dishonesty, this slipping through my days because it didn’t have to be this way. And I’m afraid that if I allow myself to feel my despair, my sorrow, and my rage, I may never feel anything else. I avert my eyes and stopper my ears and navigate away, away, away.

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