In these troubled and tragic COVID-19 times, there has been no end to our need to mourn. We have all suffered personal losses of family, friends and professional partners. In the words of the Bible, …
In these troubled and tragic COVID-19 times, there has been no end to our need to mourn. We have all suffered personal losses of family, friends and professional partners. In the words of the Bible, when describing the reach of the tenth plague that smote the Egyptian first-born males, “For there was no household that didn’t suffer a death.” Similarly, we have all been hit and affected by the unimaginable scope of suffering and death that the COVID-19 scourge has wrought.
And each day when we read the obituaries or hear on the networks a sampling of recent losses, we surely take note of the magnitude of these untimely deaths to loved ones and society. And we might very well carry around this painful load in the weeks that ensue. But over time, given the
ubiquity of death during this pandemic—and especially when it will hopefully eventually dip and flatten in enough places to render us out of the woods—the intensity of earlier-felt grief and despair will have abated. It will take some effort to recall acquaintances lost to this plague. Time, while not necessarily healing all, has the effect of blunting sorrow. And many previously experienced woes will eventually dissipate.
This phenomenon is to be seen in any situation of suffering that persists over a protracted period of time. In such situations, we react with incredulity and we are, initially, emotionally sidelined. But then, as we grow more distant from the actual tragic event, we develop a marked measure of removal. I speak here not of those more personal losses that are impossible to shake but the myriad losses of familiar figures and professional associates, along with strangers whose personal stories, as shared by the media, make us take note of the enormity of their being and profound human reach.
I became more aware and attuned to this reality, which I refer to as “stale sorrow,” when I was living in Israel during the second Intifada. The rate and spate of bus bombings and other terrorist attacks was so overwhelming.
I observed two things that occurred after each “piguah,” or act of terrorism. After an urban attack, such as a bus bombing in Jerusalem, the city became eerily silent and still. Everybody went about their business quietly and carefully. There was none of the usual honking of car horns.
A pall had descended on the city. And when the names and descriptions of the casualties were released, we all felt a dearness and a nearness to the victims. But then the citizenry fell back into place and resumed business as usual.
But that might have been an event as far back as February 2003 when the #19 bus was blown up, literally torn apart, by a suicide-bomber with many dead and seriously wounded just opposite the Prime Minister’s residence; or March of 1996, when a bus was similarly bombed in Tel Aviv on the otherwise festive holiday of Purim.
What do we remember of those victims? Sadly, our sorrows and/or connection to another’s tragic loss has a shelf life. It isn’t that we stop caring but that sustained periods of loss and suffering, such as an Intifada, and now the
COVID-19 pandemic, once they pass and decrease in intensity and evidence, are easily filed away or forgotten.
Need it be this way? Should it be natural and normal to forget someone else’s loss?
Is it healthy to hold onto sadness around inexplicable loss; or is there a good way to keep alive our awareness of great human tragedies?
When the pandemic is hopefully muted enough to be considered over, what will become of our now aching souls? Will we make memory a conscious part of our comeback? Will we create tools to tie us to these tragic times so that the lessons of lives purposefully experienced will not be lost to posterity?
Or will this massive loss of life also become a case of “stale suffering”—an emotional footnote?
Conscience dictates sustained awareness and periodic consideration. Reality, especially the hard work of rebuilding society on all levels of encounter, educationally, culturally and economically, is a great undertaking and distraction. Here, too, is a strong likelihood for “stale sorrow.”
The question of collective memory and its meaningful survival beyond the period of epic suffering is similarly challenged.
I pray for an unusual development, somewhat schizoid or radically bifurcated in nature, that allows for a measure of useful grief, sustained and studied, coupled with hope and newfound happiness, so that we can heal while still caring, and aware of immeasurable loss to so many.