How to Mourn, Find Meaning in the Deaths of 200,000

September 30, 2020
Laura Tuach
Laura Tuach, assistant director of field education in the Office of Ministry Studies at HDS / Photo: John Deputy

Some of us might feel guilty about grieving, especially if we haven’t actually lost someone to COVID-19. But as we are all grieving the lost rhythms of our daily lives as well as our feelings of familiarity and safety, gratitude can help us build resiliency and look to the future.

The recent media mentions below remind us that, as we muddle along, both grief and gratitude can exist together.

As We Adjust to a New Normal, Lessons in Grief and Gratitude

Boston Globe

Laura Tuach, MDiv ’01, assistant director of field education in the Office of Ministry Studies at HDS

“If you have loved, you have grieved,” says Tuach, mom to 8-year-old twins. Our kids feel it, too. They’re missing friendships, freedom, the traditional hallmarks of childhood.

“It’s really significant for them, and it’s easy to lose track of that when we’re trying to keep up with meals, or keeping things clean, and making sure there is some stability in the home,” she says. For children, she says, grief might show up in subtle ways: a refusal to go outside; a reliance on TV. It will show up when they least expect it, as they think about what was left behind, just as it does for grown-ups.

So how do we cope with this? This is a grief that is amorphous—a pervasive sense of lost normalcy, as opposed to the concrete loss of a loved one marked by funerals, eulogies, memorials. First, Tuach says, it’s important not to rush to find silver linings. Yes, there are benefits to this mess, for some: more unstructured time at home with kids; less pressure to ping-pong to 50 random activities. But this is also devastating, and it’s OK to let the anger, the sadness, and the absence wash over us.

“I worry about the rush to silver linings and the rush to find gratitude. That isn’t to say we can’t sit down with our families and say, ‘This is a hard day, but what can we also be grateful for?’ But when you are grieving, you need to allow space for that to happen. Parents are so busy right now. Even the notion that they would have a few minutes to feel something feels radical to me, as someone who is trained in the reflective art of noticing feelings.”

American flags in the ground / AP Photo/J. Scott ApplewhiteMarking the Passing of a Grim Pandemic Milestone for the Nation

Harvard Gazette

From Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School, Faculty Dean, Eliot House

“Two hundred thousand is a number so large that it can induce a kind of numbness. Resisting that numbness is a national responsibility. Although these deaths have gone largely unmourned on the national level, some institutions have risen to it. The New York Times printed the names of the first 100,000 people to die of the coronavirus on its front page a few months ago, and there are people in our community still reading a portion of those names aloud each day, to honor the terrible loss each death represents. Recently, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., tolled its bell 200 times, once for every thousand deaths. Abhishek Raman, a proctor in the Yard who participated in the event, says that listening to that solemn sound for a full half-hour, even virtually, helped him feel the reality of those deaths in his body.

“We need more large-scale rituals like these, to help us feel these deaths in our bodies, to render that incalculable 200,000 as 200,000 lives lived. We also need intimate rituals where stories of those who have died can be shared. This is the time of year when visitors would ordinarily gather at the Day of the Dead altars in the Peabody Museum. Adorned with photographs, flowers, and food, those altars provide a place, as I’ve learned from Professor Davíd Carrasco, to spend time with the dead and with each other. We need these gathering places. It’s hard not to be able to enter our sacred spaces or to crowd into each other’s homes, sharing food and hugs, when someone dies. Crowding onto each other’s screens is not the same ­­— but in the sharing of memories, even those flat screens become something more.

“For all of us, these deaths pose a question: not just “who were they?” but “who are we?” Longstanding inequities and structures of oppression have caused a disproportionate burden of illness and death to be borne by communities of color in this pandemic. Knowing this, who will we become — as individuals and as a nation?”

Anne Gardner / Photo Credits: Jennifer Bauer and Jana Lamberti RobertsonI'm A Minister Who'd Rather Officiate Funerals Than Weddings. Until This Year


From Anne Gardner, MDiv ’05, and Episcopal minister who currently leads the chaplaincy program at Harvard-Westlake, a private high school in Los Angeles

“Since being ordained, I have discovered both the duty and dividend that come with being a minister. On the one hand, there is no greater gift to someone in my profession than the immediacy with which people offer you their trust. Like Superman’s phone booth, my collar magically transforms me into someone worthy of entry into the most vulnerable and heart-wrenching moments life dishes out. But with that trust comes responsibility. In those tender and unsteady times, those under your care need you to be steadfast, compassionate, and most importantly, above reproach.

“Which is precisely why funerals pull so much harder at my heartstrings. For all their picture-perfect moments, weddings still symbolize a gateway to the future. By the time the big day arrives, the role of the officiant is largely ceremonial. But funerals mark a final goodbye, a transition rife with complexity and sorrow. People need a minister when poised at this kind of emotional precipice. You cease to be window dressing when you preside at a funeral. Everyone is counting on you to do the heavy lifting. And rightly so.

“But COVID’s relentless drumbeat of death has produced a tidal wave of grief. With more than 200,000 dead and no end in sight, it’s hard, even for ministers, not to become numb to the staggering amount of loss that surrounds us. From behind my mask, I watch helplessly. Social distancing has become my kryptonite. And yet the drumbeat goes on.”