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1 million dead is too many for anyone to comprehend

Healthcare workers are pictured at a drive-thru Covid-19 testing site in El Paso, Texas on January 12, 2022.  (Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images)
Healthcare workers are pictured at a drive-thru Covid-19 testing site in El Paso, Texas on January 12, 2022. (Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images)

There is no simple way to count to 1 million. Counting by fives or tens is incredibly slow. Count by hundreds and the jumps feel too big. Nothing in grade school math ever seemed to go that high; no one ever had a sufficient number of popsicle sticks or wooden blocks. And perhaps more to the point, any number really bears the risk of getting lost as I get distracted counting. Minds wander, memories fade. Were we at 124,592 or 124,952?

As a nation, we recently surpassed 1 million Americans dead from COVID-19. Some church bells rang, moments of silence were held and politicians made heartfelt statements. It was all somber and appropriate, but somehow not enough. The loss from COVID-19 is too large to count. The futility of all the pain that might have been prevented casts a long shadow. Each life lost, enormous and expansive.

One million dead is too many for anyone to hold.

I am firmly convinced that those of us alive now — living through COVID-19 — will spend the rest of our days trying to make sense of what we have endured. I don’t know if we will find answers, but I think we will spend the rest of our lives asking.

As a pastor, it is one of the great privileges of my ministry to preside at funerals. Sometimes, either out of great humility or misguided self-effacement, the dying will tell me they don’t want the “fuss” of a funeral. But I often ask them to reconsider. Funerals are for the living; letting us gather is a gift the dying give to their community.

We gather because we need to, because we were not made to grieve alone. One of COVID-19’s enduring cruelties is the way it has isolated us in our grief. Gathering to weep, to sing and tell stories, to break bread and taste Aunt Myrtle’s peach cobbler one more time is a way of loving through our sadness. In our already death-denying culture, COVID-19 stole the gift that is gathering in our grief. I worry we are now worse off emotionally and spiritually, pretending all is well when our sadness and pain are leaking out sideways.

Visitors walk through 'In America: Remember,' a public art installation commemorating all the Americans who have died due to COVID-19 near the Washington Monument on September 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. The concept of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, the installation includes more than 660,000 small plastic flags, some with personal messages to those who have died, planted in 20 acres of the National Mall. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Visitors walk through 'In America: Remember,' a public art installation commemorating all the Americans who have died due to COVID-19 near the Washington Monument on September 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. The concept of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, the installation includes more than 660,000 small plastic flags, some with personal messages to those who have died, planted in 20 acres of the National Mall. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New England seasons have a terrible habit of hopscotching quickly from winter to summer without pausing much for spring. Or from summer to winter, forgetting to wait for fall.

What I’m worried about now is that we are failing to stop and notice each life. Each death. We hopscotched back to “normal” without really acknowledging what we’ve lost. How do we count to a million? 1 million classroom desks empty, 1 million nursing home beds vacant, 1 million colleagues missing from a staff meeting, 1 million names erased from my grandmother’s handwritten address book.

I don’t know how to acknowledge 1 million dead without acknowledging one.

What I’m worried about now is that we are failing to stop and notice each life. Each death. We hopscotched back to 'normal' without really acknowledging what we’ve lost.

In my Christian tradition, one of the most beloved stories I turn to in times of trouble is when Jesus teaches about the lilies of the field, and the birds of the air.

“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? [l] And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” — Matthew 6: 26-29

For those of us that plan and worry, this story is of immense comfort. Jesus himself points to the world around him as examples of how each part of creation is cared for by God. The birds have enough to eat. The lilies are made beautiful without working for it. Maybe, then even I can slow down from my chaotic, frenetic, frenzied pace. Honestly, who has added a single hour to their life by worrying about it?

But even as I write this essay, another life moves on from this Earth. Another COVID-19 death or five on today’s news count. Twenty-one souls in Texas, 10 in Buffalo. Another heartbreak.

I don’t try to count to 1 million on my own anymore. It’s too much to hold. Instead, I get small. I look for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, the daffodils along the sidewalk in my corner of Boston, and the red-winged black birds along the Southwest Corridor. I try to attend to one life at a time, trusting that somehow, somewhere, others are attending to that one life in front of them with the tenderness of God, too.

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Laura Everett Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Laura Everett is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches.

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