Remembering Loss in a Time of Losing

There are dates that are remembered by one generation and either forgotten or observed differently by others. For many Boomers, November 22, 1963 is a generational memory that remains vivid. Of course, for Gen Xers, September 11, 2001 is a red-letter date. For the Greatest Generation, December 7, 1941 is the day that will live in infamy. And for those that came before the Greatest Generation, November 11, 1918 was the date that promised an end to all wars.

On the day Kennedy was shot, the nation lost a dream. While Jackie, Caroline, and John-John lost a husband and father, the nation lost hope. That loss was shared and mourned by Americans and others around the world. We were connected in our grief as we watched the rituals associated with burying one President while swearing in his successor.

Many Americans on the mainland were getting ready for bed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Franklin Delano Roosevelt informed the nation via radio when he gave his speech the next day to a joint session of Congress on December 8, 1941. Although it was delayed, the country still experienced this event as one collective outrage that was further cemented by the Movietone news reels that played footage in movie houses for the weeks that followed.

When peace was declared at the end of World War I, the nation was informed primarily through newspapers. The event was photographed and memorialized on the front pages of the thousands of daily papers that were published in small towns and cities. The sense of relief that came from the end of the killing was shared from pulpits as well as in town hall meetings. Recognition of the sacrifices made were localized, with monuments and memorials being raised by veteran’s groups and elected officials and observed on a national basis every November 11th at the 11th hour.

What was different with 9/11 was that so many of us watched the event happen and then re-lived the horror over weeks as television and social media implanted it in our collective and individual psyche. An interesting phenomenon that had only been a footnote in previous disasters, was the numbers of people who swore they experienced the falling of the Twin Towers, but who were nowhere near New York City. This shared trauma came about because of the media’s coverage of the event and its replaying of the images over the days that followed.

Another difference is how the country remembers the event and comes together for mourning.

Monuments exist to those who died in World War I, but November 11th is now better known for its retail discounts on cars and mattresses than the sacrifice of the Doughboys and Mademoiselle from Armentieres. Many people visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial yearly, and are floated out to the sunken battleship, Arizona, where the names of those who lie below the water’s surface are etched onto a profoundly moving white marble wall. Kennedy’s grave, with its eternal flame is one of the most visited places in Arlington Cemetery, final resting place for America’s veterans since the Civil War. On September 11, two powerful beams of light are projected into the sky marking the place where the Twin Towers once rose and visitors, while resting against the wall that surrounds the hole left in the earth after the rubble was cleared, are able to read the names of the 3,000 plus souls who perished that day.

I wonder what the COVID monument will look like. COVID is not just one single event, but similar to the Civil War, WWI and WWII, and police actions and other euphemistic terms for armed incursion that our nation has sponsored since then, an all-encompassing event claiming many lives over what may be many years. Most of its casualties will only be remembered by loved ones and memorialized on not just one single day, but multiple times throughout the year.

Similarly, as catastrophic events continue to increase due to climate change, whole communities and cultures will be impacted and forever changed. Are there going to be memorials for these?  How are we going to mark the passing of all that we are losing?

There is no doubt that having a place to put our grief is healing in itself. We go to gravesides and lay flowers. We build monuments to those who sacrificed themselves for others. We create museums and memorials to remind us never to forget. We come together, bow our heads, and recommit to doing things differently. And yet, loss continues.

There are times when the loss is so great that we become numb. Our sense of outrage is overwhelmed and our capacity for compassion is depleted. We are at such a juncture at this moment. COVID is a world-wide event, taking lives from every nation and every people on earth. Climate change is causing loss of habitat and homeland for all species with none being exempt. The economic consequences of the pandemic and climate change have caused loss of jobs, loss of life, and loss of hope. It is easy to get lost in the enormity of it all.

But we are each experiencing loss on an individual basis. Loss of predictability. Loss of choice. Loss of trust. Loss of faith. I have had to look at all of these and come to terms with one irrefutable conclusion:  I am not in charge. In accepting that, I find I am calmer and more at peace with what I can do.

The other day, I was feeling so helpless because people I dearly love had lost their homes, all their keepsakes, and had their very lives threatened by the fires out here in the West. I realized that I have historically managed my sense of helplessness by doing something. Volunteering. Making food and delivering it. Sending money. I could do none of these things. Because of COVID, I am stuck keeping a safe physical distance, forbidden to share food that may contain the virus, and money wasn’t going to help. So instead, I did the only thing I could think of. I ironed.

Here is why that worked. Ironing is a task that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The outcome of which is directly the result of my efforts, and any problems or errors are correctable in the moment. This is the very definition of control. And while control may be a figment of my imagination, completing this simple task of ironing four blouses resulted in my calming myself down.

Now I am not suggesting that the cure to the world’s dis-ease is for all of us to iron!  But I do encourage you to see what things in your life have the essential components I noted above:  a beginning, middle and end. An outcome that is directly due to your efforts. Fixable errors. And all done in a short timeframe (minutes, hours, or at most a day).

For some of you, this may mean knitting, or doing dishes, or changing the oil in your car, or washing windows, or rearranging drawers or closets. Whatever it is, I encourage you to do it. And then take a break. Enjoy that sense of having accomplished the task. You can find a time to grieve what you have lost. But also find time to celebrate what you have done.

I’m going to celebrate getting this blog written. Stay safe.

6 comments

  1. so good to know you are safe-i think of my western friends daily and pray for downpours; folding laundry, re-doing the basement crap-major excavation & removal under way; those daily walks to clear my thoughts are best of all my go=to’s-amazing number of neighbors i have met once they were brave enough to venture in nature quite the reward

  2. Thank you for writing your blog. I will now make a card for a monastic friend.. It truly is all overwhelming as the fires are relentless despite the heroics of so many. I bow down to those who help and grieve for those who deal with a depth of fear and loss I have not yet known. All is heartbreaking even as goodness emerges ever strong. I embrace it all, even the fire, visioning it becoming less and less, quieter and quieter then still.

  3. I learned from an old teacher the importance of tasks that give a sense of completion. It is like the closing of a gestalt figure. Something in this world in which so much of what we do doesn’t give us a sense of completion and we live with the frustration without realizing it.

    Keep it up Mary. Much love to you.

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