Days after thousands of lives perished on 9/11, the United States marked a national day of prayer and remembrance for the victims of the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history.
President George W. Bush delivered words of comfort and encouragement at the packed National Cathedral in Washington, where four former US presidents as well as political and religious leaders gathered on a gray cloudy morning that gave way to bright sunshine.
“Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time,” Bush said. “But goodness, remembrance and love have no end. The Lord of life holds all who die, and all who mourn.”
For days mourners poured into houses of worship. Church bells tolled. The dead were remembered at candlelight vigils across the country.
Nearly two decades later, in the midst of another national tragedy that has the US surpassing 170,000 deaths from Covid-19, there have been few signs of collective mourning among Americans.
In fact, it wasn’t until late May, with the death toll nearing 100,000, that flags on federal buildings would be lowered to half-staff to honor coronavirus victims and members of the military.
The nature of the contagion is much to blame. Stay-at-home orders forced millions of Americans to isolate to keep the disease from spreading. The dying mostly died alone.
Hospitals and nursing homes shut its doors and placed Covid-19 patients in isolation. Priests administered last rites over the phone. Helpless families said farewells the same way. Funerals were canceled, postponed or held online. Mass gatherings were prohibited.
“Without a way to gather with others to mark a loss, to acknowledge the loss, we are left with an intensified sense of isolation and also, often, a heightened sense of self reproach, anxiety, and what used to be called melancholy,” says Judith Butler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.”
“Gathering gives people a way to acknowledge the loss, to test the reality of the loss with others, to bring back the memory of the person in the context of the living, and to affirm the possibility of living on. But to deal with loss in utter isolation, or to have loss sanitized through curves and graphs, leaves us without the means we need to affirm life in the wake of loss.”
‘An enormous sadness’
From the beginning of the national health crisis, President Donald Trump has portrayed himself as a resolute wartime president defending the country against an invading “invisible enemy.”
In late April, a formation of US Navy and Air Force jets flew over New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to honor first responders on the front lines.
“The marshaling of the war metaphor … is consistent in an attempt to rally the American people to unify but to unify around very specific things,” said Micki McElya, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and author of “The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery.”
“And that has been largely not marking death, marking tragedy or marking the horror of the ongoing lack of a meaningful response or any attempt to remedy the mistakes of earlier aspects of the response, but to really focus on, ‘This is what Americans do.” And to kind of appeal to patriotism and nationalism, frankly, in order to encourage people to rally and feel united in shopping and in the economy, in the things that the administration is choosing to push forward.”
Still, focusing solely on Washington’s response to the pandemic would be letting the American public broadly off the hook, McElya said.
“We need to really consider this and talk about this as a collective national failure,” she said. “One certainly encouraged by our leadership. But people have to submit or commit to that narrative, and so many have, and that’s an enormous sadness.”
Protests as a public act of mourning
Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, said another factor contributing to the lack of a shared sense of grief is that marginalized groups, particularly people of color, have been disproportionately affected by the crisis.
“Our tendency to honor the deceased is also related to who is lost,” he said.
“And when those figures who die are celebrities, when they are young people, children and so on, when they are heroic figures – think of the death of the first responders from collapsed World Trade Center in New York – it’s easy to valorize, to validate and collectively mourn such losses.”
That the deaths of members of disenfranchised and marginalized communities do not generate the same “upwelling of compassion and concern” as that of a child or first responder “requires us to seriously scrutinize our values,” Neimeyer said.
Butler said the victims of the pandemic have come to be recognized in the ongoing national protests over the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans.
“I think Black Lives Matter is in some ways about mourning,” she said. “They were mourning those lives, standing for the value of those lives, publicly gathering in sorrow and in rage… I think that is a public act of mourning at the same time that it is a public act of protest.”
The pandemic is ‘a rolling thunder’
Americans have also navigated profoundly unsettling times in recent months – the loss of jobs and everyday routines, social isolation and the disappearance of support networks.
“At some level, we are grieving much that we cannot even easily name, and for which there are no rituals of support,” Neimeyer said. “There’s no High Mass offered for your loss of security, or there’s no ritual by which we bury or inter a career or a job that we lost.”
The trauma is compounded by the fact that no end to the pandemic appears in sight.
“It’s not that we have suffered these losses and are now trying to take stock of them,” Neimeyer said. “We continue to suffer them. It’s a rolling thunder. It’s not a storm that has passed through. We’re in the thick of it.”
Butler said the statistical curves and graphs counting the dead inform people about “what is an acceptable level of illness and death in order to reopen the economy.”
“We are thus asked to accept that death is necessary, to agree to ‘an acceptable level of death’ and business and universities that reopen in the midst of a surge are also reckoning on how much death is acceptable,” she said.
“It leads us to accept deaths that are preventable … and it makes us cold, if not cruel, in the face of calculated levels of acceptable death. So, in my mind, it is the absence of collective mourning, forms of gathering, and acknowledgment in conjunction with this calculation of acceptable death that leaves us without a sense of the value of life.”