The Grief Americans No Longer Share

As the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks arrives, a splintered nation lacks the collective resolve it once showed.

A woman looks at photos of those who went missing on September 11 in New York City.
A woman looks at photos of those who went missing on September 11 in New York City. (Stephane Ruet / Sygma / Getty)

Few images of 9/11 are more haunting than those of the New York City hospitals that sat empty, ready for injured people who never came. Years later, Francine Kelly, the nurse manager at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Lower Manhattan, remembered the scramble as everyone mobilized in that first hour after the attacks. “We converted our dialysis unit, our endoscopy unit, the rehab department—they were all converted to emergency rooms to triage what we thought and hoped was going to be hundreds and hundreds of people,” she recalled in a 2009 oral history for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

As he rushed to Ground Zero that morning, Mayor Rudy Giuliani passed St. Vincent’s and saw doctors and nurses in the streets, waiting with stretchers for a flood of ambulances. “My feeling about [the attack] escalated to It must be worse. They must know something that hasn’t been conveyed to me about how bad this is,” he remembered years later.

But by that afternoon, when NYPD Transit Officer Tracy Donahoo, injured in the collapse, sought treatment, she was struck by how eerily quiet the hospital was. “I expected so many people to be there, and [that] I’d be waiting a long time to see a doctor,” she recalls. “The doctors were very nonchalant when they saw me. They were waiting for the real bodies to come, the real people, and there was nobody there to come.” Instead, those haunting photos of empty hospital beds soon gave way to something else: the posters of the missing that plastered Lower Manhattan, each sheet of paper representing, as it aged through September, a family’s dwindling hope for a loved one’s return.

Now, as the solemn anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks arrives, the United States finds itself in the midst of another national tragedy—a rolling, day-after-day assault on our country that so far has killed more than 60 times as many Americans as the attacks of 9/11.

So why does the grief of 2020—when the coronavirus pandemic has actually filled hospitals in New York and in communities across the country—feel so different? Why does our country, so united after 9/11, feel so splintered now?

The attacks of September 11 taught Americans a new set of rituals for collective grief. The days and months that followed were an exercise in mourning on a national scale that would be refined over the next two decades, after large-scale disasters as different as mass shootings and wildfires. Now the aftermath of such events follows a distinct arc: The community that experiences the tragedy announces itself “strong,” flags fly, the news media run pictures and profiles of the victims whose promising lives were cut short, the president and other national leaders arrive for a mass funeral in a stadium or convention hall, and monuments get built quickly.

We now know how to do tragedy. We know how to turn individual loss into national symbols. The ambitious New York Times “Portraits of Grief” project personalized and humanized the tragedy of 9/11, breaking readers’ hearts with mere snapshots and sparse anecdotes only two or three paragraphs long. The story of one firefighter, Michael Carlo, so moved me that I tore it from the newspaper—this was, after all, back when most Americans read physical newspapers—and carried it in my wallet until it crumbled.

Earlier this year, the paper filled its entire front page with names as the country hit 100,000 dead, one-line obituaries for a thousand people felled by the virus. The Times is reprising those portraits of grief, profiling the ordinary and extraordinary lives cut short by the novel coronavirus. And yet the exercise this year feels dissimilar—the loss of life is no less tragic, the pictures are familiar, but the presumption that every American is experiencing the same kind of grief has vanished. Why?

In 1967, the sociologist Robert Bellah posited the idea of a unique American “civil religion.” He argued that the U.S. had established “from the earliest years of the republic … a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” that bind its citizens together.

Our history, he argued, has long focused on two seminal events—the democratic promise of the American Revolution and the trauma of the Civil War. Whereas Thomas Jefferson and the Founders first gave our country meaning, Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, introduced to the country “a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth,” Bellah wrote. National cemeteries enshrined those martyrs in the public’s memory; the battlefields remain hallowed pilgrimage sites today. The historian Drew Gilpin Faust, in her book This Republic of Suffering, traced how the Civil War changed the way America grieved, because, for the first time, Americans in large numbers were dying away from home and family. Americans needed to collectivize their grief.

The attacks of September 11—which killed more people on American soil than any event since Gettysburg itself—updated for the modern age that sense of death, sacrifice, and rebirth, ushering in a new chapter of America’s civil religion embodied not just by grief and solidarity but by fear and anxiety.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated grief have created a different sensory experience for the country. Despite the hours of dedicated cable-news coverage, the pandemic is difficult to capture on TV. Graphics and colorful charts hardly do justice to the illness, death, and suffering that have played out mostly behind closed doors in nursing homes and hospitals. Rare photos of corpses in tractor trailers have been snapped covertly by medical professionals fearful of being fired. Past crises were literally easier to picture: the fallen sharpshooter on the field of Gettysburg, the child victim cradled by a firefighter in Oklahoma City, the falling man of 9/11.

At the same time, Americans have been physically unable to mourn this tragedy together. Many families who lost loved ones this year could not stand graveside at their burial; the loss of a friend or family member occurred over FaceTime; memorial services occurred over Zoom. The events of 9/11 sparked any number of community candlelight vigils. This pandemic has brought forth tears but inhibited hugs.

This spring, as the death toll in New York City peaked, I interviewed the daughter and the widow of the musician Alan Merrill, who wrote the hit song “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” made famous by Joan Jett. Merrill died at 69 of COVID-19. Laura, his daughter, told me of walking home through Manhattan after leaving her father at the hospital. “It was like that movie Vanilla Sky, with Tom Cruise—there was just no one in Manhattan,” she recounted. “Every store I passed had notices in the window: You can’t come in; you have to abide by a six-foot limit for social distancing. It’s everywhere … And then I realized that I was going to be alone. I had to self-quarantine.”

His wife, Joanna Lisanti, told me, “People don’t even know what it’s like to grieve alone. You have no one to hug, no one to touch; no one can help you. That’s the difference with this epidemic. That’s what this virus is doing. It’s not just punishing the people who die; it’s punishing the people who are left.”

Beyond the solace of human companionship, the pandemic has robbed Americans of our national spiritual unity. The nation came together in the weeks after 9/11; President George W. Bush’s approval rating soared into the 90s, and we celebrated our troops and our first responders. NYPD memorabilia flew off shelves. We rallied together, in sadness and fury, to defeat al-Qaeda and mobilize for a War on Terror.

Today, whatever shared national spirit existed in the first weeks of the pandemic has been fractured beyond repair. Most of the only major collective gatherings America has seen since March have been angry street protests triggered by deaths at the hands of police. Meanwhile, the unending duration of the tragedy—every day feels like the 200th replay of the same day in March—makes our grief feel all the more exhausting. We have nothing to unite around, seemingly nothing to do but keep waiting for a vaccine that may still be months away. The sadness and fury are still present, but in 2020 they don’t galvanize; they paralyze.

The 9/11 attacks unfolded, from start to finish, over just 102 minutes, from the first crash to the collapse of the Twin Towers. The government never had a chance to muster a response. During the pandemic, each new day adds to a ghastly death toll that underscores the sense that it didn’t have to be this way. Each new death is the consequence of a botched response, a government that didn’t care enough, and an American population too impatient to demand the necessary precautions.

Far from showing the common purpose evident after 9/11, America is in the grip of a “can’t do” spirit. We can’t test enough people. We can’t open our schools. We can’t return to work. Other industrialized nations have managed to defeat this pandemic. While we watch life in Europe and Asia return to something approximating normal, America is caught in a Groundhog Day loop, with a death toll every three or four days equal to that of September 11. The number of Americans killed by the coronavirus is rapidly approaching 200,000—more than the entire population of Mobile, Alabama, or Worcester, Massachusetts. That tens of thousands more Americans will die before the end of the year seems all but certain.

The COVID-19 victims who stare back from the newspapers aren’t martyrs; they’re haunting ghosts of our nation’s failure. Where is the rebirth that, according to our civil religion and our national rituals of grief, is supposed to accompany national sacrifice? It has yet to arrive, because the crisis isn’t even over.

The tragedy of 9/11 had a certain purity—the definable evil of terrorists killing innocent civilians, interrupted amid their morning routine, and the first responders who rushed to their rescue. On that day and on every September 11 since, Americans have vowed never to forget that loss.

The current pandemic may have a different outcome. As historians have resurrected stories of the 1918 flu pandemic, many Americans have been surprised to learn of it for the first time. Coming at the end of World War I, that cataclysm largely vanished from the nation’s civic consciousness. In the years ahead, Americans could wish to forget the COVID-19 pandemic—the deaths of 2020 wiped from our national memory in shame, an embarrassing chapter in which our government failed us and we failed our fellow Americans.

Briefly last month, the ongoing failure to contain the pandemic appeared likely to obstruct New York’s 9/11 anniversary ritual. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum announced that its annual “Tribute in Light,” the powerful beams that stretch up into the night sky to commemorate the fallen towers, would be canceled because of safety concerns related to the pandemic. After public outcry, though, the museum promised that the lights would “again shine as beacons of our city’s resilience.” Never in the past 19 years has America needed a reminder of collective resolve more.