Grief upon Grief
April 5, 2020 – David R. Weiss
Our world—yours and mine—is changing before our very eyes. I watch the nightly news and see the pandemic numbers—the daily counts of both cases and deaths. They rise unabated. Unimaginable. 8500 deaths in the U.S. as of early this morning. We’re likely to triple that—by Easter. We’ll be loading tombs so quickly, I doubt many of us will even care to shout Alleluia.
Two thirds of our population is too young to have much memory of the Vietnam War, our country’s last encounter with daily death on the nightly news. Between 1965 and 1972, about 58,000 U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam. We’re likely to see more than 60,000 Americans die from this pandemic in the month of April alone. If we’re not too late and too lax in our responses of distancing and school/business closures and mask-wearing—all of these grotesquely delayed in their deployment—then those 60,000 deaths will be slightly more than half of our total loss of life. But it’s also still very possible that those 60,000 deaths will be only a fraction of those who die from COVID-19 before it fades away.
The other large-scale epidemic that crossed many of our lives, of course, is HIV/AIDS. In the next two months we will see as many deaths from COVID-19 as in the deadliest two years of the AIDS epidemic. Which is simply to say, none of us alive today can truly imagine the period of history we are now entering. Over the next two months—the next 60 days—we will be initiated into a level of national suffering beyond anything those of us living today have known as a nation.
It will be more than just the number of deaths. But surely not less than them. The waves of rising and unremitting grief will be overwhelming. Grief upon grief upon grief. Already we see the deaths reach much more widely across demographics than we had told ourselves when the pandemic still seemed far away. While age is a certainly a factor—especially that the elderly are most at risk and youth are least at risk—many adults in seemingly prime health have been felled. And many survivors describe the illness as unlike anything they have ever endured.
Moreover, the deaths will fall disproportionately on communities of color because poverty and lack of ready access to healthcare are comorbidity factors (they make the disease more likely to kill). And never in our lifetimes have we seen a disease as quick to infect—and kill—healthcare workers themselves. By now many of us know personally someone who is ill or is at great risk of exposure because they work in healthcare. By June—in just 60 days—that knowing … will come to include death. Many of us will know someone who has died firsthand or secondhand; we won’t need five degrees of separation! Grief upon grief upon grief.
While these will be the numbers easiest to tally, when the dust—the death—has settled, other numbers will be tallied as well. The non-healthcare “essential” workers, from janitorial and sanitation workers to grocery workers and transit/delivery drivers and those in other jobs—for whom illness or death came because they worked to keep society functioning while the rest of us—too many of us begrudgingly or half-heartedly!—fought the pandemic by staying home. Eventually their numbers, their stories—and hopefully their obscenely low wages for doing this “society-saving work”—will be told. Collateral damage as it were. More grief upon grief upon grief.
Then there will be those who escape with their lives … in ruin. Yes, there is a “package” of relief on the way. And, yes, of course, it will “help”—even as it is woefully too little, too late, and too tilted toward the corporations at the top. But undeniably, the socio-economic-educational toll is beyond a price tag. Jobs lost. Homes lost. Apartment evictions. Small businesses closed, bankrupt, or buried in debt. Dreams delayed or altogether shattered. Families whose fortunes (by which I mean wellbeing not wealth) will be forever twisted by the scars of this pandemic. And, even if all these persons are grateful to be alive, they, too, will know grief upon grief upon grief.
Will there be energy enough left for rage? I hope so. Because while pandemics are always ugly—they always come bearing grief—this pandemic (especially in our country) rushes over us with such intensity because of something that approaches homicidal narcissism in the White House. This administration has acted—over the short years leading up to this outbreak, and also in the first days, weeks, and (inexcusably!) months as it began—to intentionally undermine our national capacity to respond to a pandemic. We have shuttered programs, slashed budgets, squandered leadership, betrayed international trust, and strained the very relationships needed in a moment of crisis. We aimed(!) to set a more disconnected fend-for-ourselves-at-the expense-of-others standard(!) of brutish behavior … in a world that is, in reality, more connected than ever—a truth we now see going viral around the globe.
This is the hard truth we dare not forget. This pandemic would have cost us grief no matter what. But the man in the White House—bumbling, joking, belittling, and lying at the microphone (and by twitter) on a daily basis—has almost single-handedly made this pandemic exponentially worse on our people. The blood on his hands will not dry for the rest of his life.
True as well, there are people around him eager to manipulate his pathetic insecurity, hateful biases, and insatiable greed in order to use him as a tool for their own agendas, which are to further fracture our country and our world. They hope to institutionalize authoritarian power that will be white supremacist, misogynist, xenophobic, and oppressive of anyone who doesn’t become subservient to their worldview. These people—who “herd” the bull in the china shop we call the White House—drove the policy choices over the past three years that set the stage for the grief that is about to sweep over us. And these people are ready and waiting to seize even this grief as an opportunity to press forward with their plans. They, too, will have the blood of our grief on their hands for the rest of their lives.
Meanwhile, we will be awash with grief. Grief upon grief upon grief. Reeling well into the summer. Our social safety nets (already deliberately weakened by the GOP) will be in tatters. Our economy in a shambles. Our lives in disarray. But through our tears and heartache, we ought make space for our rage. Because the vast majority of these people—including nearly all of the healthcare workers—did not need to die. Their deaths, and the severe disruption experienced by so many others, rest directly upon the choices of this administration. As real and deep as our grief is, our rage should run even deeper.
Justice is what love looks like in public, says Cornell West (and I agree). During this pandemic, in our personal lives, grief will be the form of love for far too many of us. Over-taking compassion and care and distancing—which are also the forms of love in our personal and communal lives during a pandemic. But in our public life, in our politics, if love looks like justice, then these days—and for many days ahead—on behalf of all the needless grief we will endure, that love ought to feel like rage.
But wait—is that even Christian? Well, it’s Palm Sunday today. In many a virtual worship service, palms were waved and “Hosannas” were shouted to honor Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. But tomorrow? On Monday Jesus went to the Temple, where he saw people’s religious devotion and anxiety exploited for profit. And he flew into a holy rage. He fashioned a whip out of loose cords and drove the animals and their sellers out of courtyard, and he overturned the tables of the money changers. So I say, come November, it is our loving duty—to the dead and to those who suffered—to fashion a whip out of our ballots, and, with holy rage, to drive the man and as many of his party as we can out of the White House and out of Congress. Then I’ll say Alleluia.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.