Grappling With a Terrible Milestone: One Hundred Thousand Dead

To mourn in a moment of collective trauma is to experience not one but multiple layers of loss.

Graves in a cemetery
Peter Van Agtmael / Magnum

Two years ago, after becoming sick with a virus that led to pneumonia, my 71-year-old father died unexpectedly of a blood clot at NYU’s hospital. My brothers and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, and on the day of my father’s death in March—one of those balmy days when the pivot from winter to spring sings along your skin—I found myself mourning not just his death, but the fact that he had been alone when he died, without ceremony, without goodbyes, without family or friends or his beloved book collection around him. He died without any of the bulwarks against meaninglessness that we spend our lives carefully knitting into being.

Recently, I’ve heard from many people about how hard it is to have a loved one in the hospital right now (whether for COVID-19 or another medical problem), and to be unable to squeeze their hand, hug them, whisper what may be last words. In one sense, I know how they feel. But in another sense, I have no clue, since my father did not die during a pandemic. As the U.S. death count from COVID-19 approached 100,000, I thought about how different it is to mourn a single death and to mourn a death in the middle of a mass trauma—to mourn amid so much death.

That number—100,000 dead from the coronavirus—is hard to grasp. For those who have lost someone, the pandemic’s scope is not just a statistic; within the abstraction lies an intimately life-changing event. For the rest of us, it is a fact we must try to wrestle into perspective. One hundred thousand people is nearly the population of the city I now live in; it is a neighborhood’s worth of people in Brooklyn, my longtime home; it is perhaps 10 times the total number of people most of us will cross paths with in our entire lives. It is graveyard upon graveyard upon graveyard. It is mass burials at Hart Island, bodies stacked in refrigerated trucks outside hospitals and nursing homes. It is PTSD for the nurses and doctors in the hardest-hit areas. Mostly, it is the shocking echo that follows the loss of even one person: zero, zero, zero, zero, zero. A lament: O, O, O, O, O.

After my mother died at the age of 55, in 2008, I wrote a book about mourning. I read through scholarly texts and novels and poems that touched explicitly on grief. In the process, I learned how physical it is, causing changes in cortisol levels, memory, sleep, and appetite, leaving the mourner exhausted, scattered, struggling to resume “normalcy.” But perhaps the key thing I learned is that grief needs a vessel: It needs language, it needs lamentation, it needs expression, it needs demarcation in time; it demands a pause in everyday activity. My mother died on Christmas Day. I recall the shock of comfort in having my mother’s sisters and brother gather with us a few days later, the “small, good thing,” as Raymond Carver put it, of sharing bread, wine, and stories late into the night. Their presence was soothing: the light in their faces, their enduringness. In this pandemic, you lose the person, and you lose the ability to mourn that person together. And you lose that after having already lost the ability to spend time with your loved ones in the hospital, in hospice, or at home in the days, hours, or minutes before they died.

In times of crisis, when the usual rituals suddenly can no longer be performed, new practices take shape. In the absence of a body they can say goodbye to, people search for other ways to memorialize the dead. During the Civil War, formal photographic portraits took on new importance, clung to by families as mortal reminders. World War I led to a rise in séances and spiritualism, and a proliferation of monuments covered in the names of soldiers who never made it back, whose bodies disappeared somewhere across the sea. Today, we sit shiva by Zoom. For some, virtual mourning may bring new kinds of relief. As Lynn Harris, a writer and start-up founder who lost her mother to COVID-19, recently told me by email, she was glad not to have to figure out what to do with stragglers or extra food when the shiva ended.

Burial rites and mourning customs give shape to absence; they provide cues for how to behave when your world is shaken—and for how slowly to make the transition from acute grief to normal life. As we build new practices for this moment, we must name the void: To mourn in a moment of collective grief is to experience not one but multiple layers of loss. As my friend the scholar Sonya Posmentier, who lost her father to cancer just before the lockdown began, told me, “There’s the immediacy of the pandemic and the sense of grieving as a metaphor, more abstract—not for a body but for a life. And then there is grieving for the body, the person who is gone.”

Grief in normal times is confrontation with the implausible that is, alas, all too real. The world tilts on its axis. What you’ve taken for granted vanishes, often without explanation and sometimes without preparation. I remember thinking, after my mother died, that I was no longer sure the sidewalk would be solid when I stepped on it. In a pandemic, death becomes, brutally, less implausible. To lose someone in this moment is to experience grief laced upon grief, but it is also, as Sonya put it, to feel not alone. The strangest thing about mourning is that you leave the room of your sorrow, try to return to the behaviors and events of everyday life—a job, a social life—and find yourself at odds with those around you, for whom nothing is radically changed. How can the world go on, you think, when my mother is gone? “Usually you feel out of step in grief,” Sonya said. “But I feel unintentionally in step.”

What we don’t know yet: how death on this scale will change the life of the nation, if it will. Perhaps it will lastingly affect the life of New York City—which has once again found itself at the center of a national tragedy, as it did after 9/11—but not of a small town in Arizona that goes largely unscathed.

What we do know, or ought to know: Mourning together is at least as important—more important?—to our survival as the divisive arguments about whether restoring the economy or protecting vulnerable people matters more. In this election year, every aspect of the pandemic and the nation’s response to it has been politicized, and there is no collective, top-down mourning process—an absence that is exposing the unseemly seams of our barely stitched-together society. Right now, our mourning feels individual, not collective, with fights breaking out about masks, freedom, “fake news,” and the like.

A formal feeling, as Emily Dickinson put it, sits in me, a sense of remove I want to eradicate by walking among the bodies of the living instead of sitting at home alone. What feels out of step right now is not my grief, but my distance from the community that shares it.