Imagine for a moment that 1,000 domestic passenger planes crashed in a few months’ time and that the country was being jolted by a new wreck every few hours, day after day, for weeks.
That represents the massive loss of life — more than 125,000 people — that COVID-19 has inflicted on the country, said David Kessler, a Los Angeles-based author and grief expert.
But because so many of the virus’ victims have died in quarantine, and their funerals have been delayed or downsized, there have been few visuals to illustrate the loss. Without photos and stories of the dead to stir our emotions, the pandemic has yet to spur the prominent collective displays of remembrance that typically mark national tragedy.
There has been no day of mourning, like the one to commemorate victims of Hurricane Katrina. Nor much in the way of the candlelight vigils that often recognize those killed in mass shootings. Or memorial sites, piled with flowers and photos, such as those that emerged at ground zero in the wake of 9/11.
Though the United States’ pandemic casualties are now greater than those of World War I, the country has not acknowledged its millions of mourners with so much as a, “ ‘So sorry for your loss,’ ” Kessler said. Instead, “we’re all discussing trying to reopen: ‘Do you think we really need to wear a mask?’ ‘What about the bars, are they opening?’ ‘Can we go to the gym now?’ ”
This lack of recognition can make working through a loss more difficult. Even before the pandemic, Kessler noticed a concerning correlation between people who were really struggling through their grief and those who had delayed holding a ritual.
“One of my biggest fears is that we are going to have this wave of people with complicated grief, because we’re a society now that’s allowing these grievers to be forgotten.”
The lack of collective mourning for COVID-19 victims is rooted in the way the pandemic has altered how we grieve.
Harder to process loss
Minnesota-based Washburn-McReavy, which provides funeral, cremation and cemetery services, has seen an uptick in business of about three additional death calls per day, said president Bill McReavy. It’s also changed its practices to keep staff and mourners safe.
But the mask-wearing, social-distancing and sanitized guest-book pens now seen at services are minor compared to the state-mandated attendance limits, he said.
Historically, funerals have been publicized in obituaries and open to the public. Canceling or delaying services, and limiting the number of people who can gather can hamper grievers’ ability to process their loss. “Grief shared is grief diminished,” said McReavy.
Strong social connections are one of the most important factors in cultivating emotional well-being. That is especially true after the death of a loved one, said psychologist Molly Ruggles, assistant clinical director at the FamilyMeans Center for Grief & Loss in St. Paul.
Because grief is so isolating and social connections are such a major part of healing from a loss, having a public component to grieving rituals — gathering, reminiscing, bringing over food — is common across cultures.
“The purpose is really to remember and reflect and be able to be present with our emotional experiences around that loss in the presence of others, rather than in isolation,” Ruggles said.
As the country experiences the trauma of the pandemic, she said, a sense of unity — which seems to be lacking — could help manage the grief, shock and fear.
“Having a sense of feeling connected and being in it together can be really helpful in coping,” she said.
The ongoing, elusive, and widespread nature of the threat has also contributed to the lack of collective response. Past pandemics — most notably the 1918 flu, which killed 675,000 Americans — have rarely been memorialized.
In many traumatic experiences, the events unfold in a matter of minutes or days, and then grief can follow. But there’s no one traumatic moment in a pandemic. And there’s no end in sight.
The virus’ continued spread has kept our brains in survival mode, which Ruggles described as “a place where we are stressed and preoccupied rather than reflective and present to emotional experiences like grief.”
Another pandemic anomaly: With a typical loss, the unaffected help the affected, but in this case, everyone has been affected — at the very least, by the fear of being infected — making it difficult to turn one’s attention to the grieving. “Everyone is self-consumed with their own survival,” Kessler said.
Also, in contrast to an attack or disaster — where a person or thing is responsible for something that takes place in a confined area — a virus is an invisible enemy that could be anywhere. “It could be on the doorknob in your house, it could be on your loved one, it could be in their breath,” Kessler said.
Uniquely American factors
There are also circumstances unique to the United States that have led to our absence of national mourning. President Donald Trump has shied away from his role as consoler in chief, shifting focus away from the dead to deflect criticism of his leadership during the crisis.
But a president who fails to project empathy isn’t the only one to blame, said University of Connecticut history Prof. Micki McElya, who has written extensively on the politics of mourning.
“There’s been a failure among the American people,” she said. “Sure, the administration sets the tone, but it speaks to deeper divisions, and also to structural inequalities in this country,” she said.
Marginalized groups are overrepresented among the severely ill and deceased, particularly people of color, whose more limited access to good health care has led to chronic conditions that make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“The disproportionate impact on these populations is such clear evidence of how structural inequality works,” McElya said.
She also noted that people of color are more likely to work in jobs that increase their risk of contracting the virus — caring for the elderly, processing meat, fulfilling online orders — or live in institutions such as prisons and homeless shelters, where it’s easy for infections to spread.
In some ways, McElya said, the COVID-19 dead are being recognized in the uprisings around George Floyd’s death and the country’s racial disparities — among them the brutal effects of the pandemic on the black community.
“I actually think we are getting organic responses, and they are a part of this wider national reckoning with inequality and violence,” she said. “It’s the failure of the state to protect the citizens and to protect all citizens equally.”
While some American coronavirus victims have been honored in the media, there haven’t been events with the broad traction of a national moment of silence, like those recently observed in China, Italy and the U.K.
With the populace so siloed, and those most affected going largely unseen, it’s difficult for many of us to feel we have anything in common with those who have died of the virus.
And yet, in a country with vast, varied geography and great diversity in population, the act of mourning together and recognizing shared loss is one of the few ways to bind people together, McElya added. It’s a way for those who haven’t been directly affected by a COVID-19 death to support those who have, and to acknowledge their own vulnerability.
“We don’t share a number of things, but what we do share is loss,” she said.