The headline for today’s blog is a direct quote from Wuhan resident, Veranda Chen. Mr. Chen’s mother succumbed to the virus. She was but one of the 327,738 deaths worldwide as of this writing. His story was one of four that were documented in a New York Times piece on how people are making meaning of all that has happened and how they are moving on.
Mr. Chen’s quote fits with what I wanted to write about this Memorial Day weekend. How do I make meaning of the loss of over 300,000 souls who no longer are alive to greet the dawn, complain of tired feet, smile at babies, dream of holidays, and remember to buy flowers for a loved one? And what of the surviving spouses, partners, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, and step and half-relatives, colleagues and friends who are mourning their passing? Is there a way to express the singular grief that is now shared by millions? These questions haunt me.
It is not as if we do not know that we are going to die. What makes this pandemic so intense is that we cannot hide from the fact, nor duck the possibility that many of us will die sooner than we planned, and in a way most of us could never imagine.
A very stark difference between the Spanish Flu pandemic and COVID-19 is that people back in the early 1900’s had a different expectation about living forever. Death was, perhaps, not quite so surprising. Yet the loss remained painful. Another shock to the sensibility and morals of the nations of the world was the senseless and intentional slaughter of humans that took place in World War I. After that war ended, with estimated deaths put between 15 and 23 million combatants and non-combatants, those who were left alive pledged an end to war and erected countless monuments as a way of reminding the living just what the dead had sacrificed.
War dead are different from virus dead. What will we do for the COVID dead? Are their deaths something not to be memorialized? We utilize similar metaphors in describing both. We have “heroes” going to work during the pandemic. We have “losses”. There are many who may have “died in vain”. Certainly, there will be many more “casualties”. I wonder if there will be monuments built honoring the many physicians, nurses, first responders, and other allied medical personnel who have been called “warriors” to go alongside the grave markers.
Memorial Day in past, happier, non-COVID years, has marked the beginning of summer. While parades may have honored those who served in the military, and flags would have appeared on the graves of veterans, more recently this holiday has been about celebrating the freedom that summer brings. Beaches would open, picnics and backyard barbeques would be gathering places for friends and family. But not this year. This year, we will confront loss on many levels: loss of jobs, loss of loved ones, loss of favorite restaurants, loss of freedom of movement. These losses will not be memorialized, although it will be hard to forget them.
Personally, I am thinking of ways to remember those who have died from COVID-19. I will put my flag up, because I still believe that this country can do great things and those who have died to protect our freedom, whether it be in war or peace, deserve to be honored. I will take a few moments and express compassion and lovingkindness for those who are currently struggling with the virus in hospitals, nursing homes, and care facilities throughout the world. I will extend my gratitude to those who are caring for them, recognizing their commitment to helping others even as they themselves may be exposed.
I will also say a silent prayer for those who are consumed with fear and anxiety about this virus and who have too few tools and distractions to quell their distress. For these many thousands, I extend my wish that they find a way to feel safe. I will pray that they have access to soap and water and will remember to wash their hands. I will pray they have access to masks and that they wear them not just to protect themselves, but to protect others with whom they come into contact. I will pray that they find ways to connect with what is present instead of what may happen, even if what is present is uncomfortable or distressing.
I find that I am content with my new way of relating to the world, and wish that others may also find contentment. As a survivor of COVID-19, I have a level of fearlessness that comes from not just having survived, but having come out of this stronger. That resilience isn’t just physical, it is also psychological. I know that I can soothe my body and calm my frightened mind if I have patience and compassion for myself. That means choosing being quiet. Paying attention to my breathing. Listening to soothing music. Turning off the talking heads who are adding to my distress instead of calming the waters. I can exercise my will in these and other positive ways.
And maybe there will be monuments. Perhaps some visual artist will find a way to put together a mosaic of faces, memories, sounds, and videos that will capture the void left behind when the virus took these lives. Perhaps the monument will not be made of stone, but will have an even more permanent and permeating reach so that if we dare to forget, we will be reminded in a visceral way what it means to be vulnerable to an unseen power, yet held and defended by the love and efforts of so many who want the best for us. Mr. Chen captured this when he said he would be remembering past suffering, and thinking of present joy.
I hope you will join with me this Memorial Weekend, and take a moment to remember past suffering and think of your present joys.