This nation passed a tragic milestone earlier this week: More than 500,000 Americans dead from COVID-19. It is an astonishing number, as if nearly the entire population of St. Paul and Ramsey County died within a single year.

And finally, we have public acknowledgment from a president as to the grievous toll this disease as taken. In a simple White House ceremony Monday that befit the solemnity of the occasion, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden led a moment of silence. Against the dusk, 500 lit candles adorned the South Portico and its stairs, each candle representing 1,000 American dead. Biden ordered federal flags to half-staff and earlier, bells at the Washington National Cathedral tolled 500 times.

This is a president whose own still-keen sense of loss allows him to channel both grief and hope, to speak knowingly of "that black hole in your chest … the survivor's remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul." The hard lessons from surviving the long-ago death of his first wife and daughter and the still-recent loss of an adult son to brain cancer give Biden the ability to speak to how a nation can remember the 500,000 lives lost, cherish them, grieve them but also learn from them.

And as a nation remembers, he said, "I also ask us to act, to remain vigilant, to stay socially distanced, to mask up, get vaccinated when it's your turn. We must end the politics and misinformation that's divided families, communities … ."

Instead of dividing us, those simple directives can bring us together, united in our determination to protect those who have so far survived this horrible pandemic. The reality is that there will be more sadness ahead.

Vaccinations alone have presented a monumental task. Who gets the shot and when is a terrible choice to have to make. Seniors or teachers? Grocery workers or hospital aides? Because every dose is needed, Minnesota recently had to track down thousands of errant doses mistakenly sent to Texas, deploying the National Guard to fetch the precious cargo and carry it across the state. And yet, the vaccines may not protect against every variant. Still more vigilance is demanded of a weary nation that yearns for a return to "normal."

In our own state, more than 480,000 have been infected, with more than 6,500 dead. The dead must be mourned. But we can allow ourselves to grieve as well for all the losses we have suffered. The lost birthdays, graduations, weddings and other events. The gatherings in our homes, the good times in restaurants and bars. The lost jobs and businesses. So many losses. We must mourn, but we also must rebuild.

"Let this not be a story of how far we fell," Biden said, "but how far we climb back up."