“There is no time to grieve now, there is no time. There is only time for labor in the cold,” wrote the poet Stephen Vincent Benét reflecting on the life of Mary Allerton, who sailed to America on the Mayflower and suffered a stillbirth.
This poem speaks of the resistance to grief and relentless thrust forward that has shaped our national DNA. Alexis de Tocqueville described our tendency for optimism and energy, saying that Americans “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man.” This is often a beautiful thing about American culture. It allows us to continue in the face of challenges and change. We work hard. We accomplish great things. We keep our gaze solidly fixed on things before us, not behind us.
But this tendency has a dark side. We, as a culture, have left little space for grief.
In the last few days, we crossed a grim milestone: One million Americans have now died from Covid-19. “More Americans have died of Covid-19,” reported The Times, “than in two decades of car crashes or on battlefields in all of the country’s wars combined.”
The magnitude of the loss is overwhelming. Every person who died represents a community, a family or a group of friends who will never be the same. The extent of the sorrow this number represents cannot be graphed or measured. We are left with inarticulate horror.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, many have noted the striking lack of communal mourning amid staggering death tolls. This is in part because of the nature of the virus itself.
Those who died often died alone, without friends or family around them. When my friend Bill died of Covid, having contracted it in his nursing home, our rector, prohibited from entering the hospital, performed last rites as best he could over Zoom. The isolation of Bill’s last days is heartbreaking to me. For much of the pandemic, before vaccines were widely available, we could not meet en masse for funerals. Many of the religious rituals we embrace in loss and grief were interrupted by social distancing and our attempts to prevent yet more death.
But the politicization of the response to Covid-19 has also made it more difficult to collectively mourn. National tragedies such as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Challenger explosion were observed by collective rituals of public grief. Under the Trump administration there was no formal ceremony of mourning. The first official observance of public grief from our executive branch came in January 2021, when Joe Biden held a memorial ceremony the night before his inauguration.
My therapist often reminds me that underneath anger is usually grief or fear. These pandemic years have been awash in grief and fear for many of us. But since we often did not — or could not — find ways to embrace and acknowledge that sorrow and dread publicly, we seemed, as a nation, to sputter along in a low-grade state of rage, which persists to this day.
A pandemic, by nature, doesn’t have a clear ending. There has been so much loss but even if the public health emergency is eventually declared over, there can be no clear V-E Day, no obvious mark of the defeat of the enemy that has taken so many lives. It’s hard for us then to know when or how to move on. This means that we, as a nation, are in a profoundly difficult and emotionally complicated moment.
In early December 2020, the first vaccines were administered in the United States. I remember sitting at my computer screen last June, tears streaming down my face in joy, as I watched Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jimmy Fallon (with loads of other Broadway stars) announce, through song, the reopening of Broadway in front of a live audience on “The Tonight Show.” I’m not even going to be near Broadway any time soon, but the hope Miranda offered that night felt palpable and triumphant.
In July, New York City held its first ticker-tape parade since the pandemic began. Mayor Bill de Blasio declared: “We’ve got a lot to appreciate, because we’re well underway in our recovery. We’ve got a lot to celebrate and we’ve got a lot of people to celebrate.”
But since then, we’ve seen major Covid variants sweep America and still more deaths. There are even now about one in six Americans who medically can get vaccinated who say they will “definitely” not get the vaccine, which continues to drive up death rates. I feel suspended in midair — flailing between Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reassuring smile and the horror of death upon death.
Part of the nature of loss on this scale is that it has affected all of us differently. There are those whose lives have mostly returned to normal with in-person work, church and school. But those who have lost beloved family members and close friends are still in the midst of deep grief, which cannot and should not be rushed.
This asymmetry is painful. I recall the day after my father died — I was walking through a busy airport and feeling it was somehow impossible that the people around me just kept going with their ordinary days. How can the world keep chugging along when my own world had been shattered? It felt horribly wrong.
Covid will probably be with us in some form for thousands of years. America is slowly learning to live with this new disease. But to move forward, we must find collective ways, as a nation, as cities, as churches and as communities to grieve across the country and across the aisle, without it immediately becoming a moment for political strife. This may be too much to ask of our nation, as things stand now, but I think we need it anyway.
We need an official national day of mourning and reflection in response to Covid-19. We need places of worship and civic organizations of all stripes to join in with services of memorial and lament, moments of silence, or ceremonies of remembrance. We, as a people, are tired. We are broken. We have shouldered much grief. There needs to be ritualized and intentional space to acknowledge this together.
Of course there is anger about needless deaths caused by failures in leadership, by disinformation, and by a fractured national response to Covid. This anger is warranted and should be expressed. However, it is not enough to rage in the face of death. We have to descend into these deeper, more vulnerable places of acknowledging grief and fear in order to heal and grow beyond the anger that has so dominated our national conversations about Covid.
As we reach this milestone, we can and should channel our collective grief into policies and practices that will help prevent more deaths in the future. We can continue to promote vaccines and persuade those who are skeptical of them. We can enact limited but more effective masking policies. We can install better indoor ventilation systems and ensure workers have robust sick leave. We can make sure that Evusheld and other lifesaving drugs are widely available, and we can follow suggestions to protect older people and the immunocompromised.
But beyond these practical responses, there is emotional work to be done. How can we as a nation ever heal, rebuild and move forward unless we, together, can meaningfully grieve what has been lost?
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”
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