Where is America's Outpouring of Grief Over COVID-19?

Nurses and healthcare workers mourn and remember their colleagues who died during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, April 10, 2020. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

America has a long history of coming together to grieve after a national tragedy. It was visible in the days after 9/11 when stars and stripes suddenly filled the windows of shopfronts and homes across America. It was overwhelming after the Sandy Hook mass shooting in 2012, when 65,000 teddy bears and 500,000 letters were sent to Newtown, Connecticut. And the grief that Americans shared after the assassination of President Lincoln was so immense, it's still with us in a variety of forms more than a century and a half later.

Yet, a public display of collective grief for the more than 70,000 American lives lost to COVID-19 remains largely absent. We are willing to make noise for healthcare workers, put teddy bears in windows for children, and we might even make and distribute face masks. But when it comes to the lives of the thousands we've lost, few people are yet ready to look directly into the eye of that particular storm, and deal with all the mourning that will inevitably come with it.

What we as a nation usually do after a tragedy is look straight to the victims of it. When there are high profile mass shootings, for example, we spend days learning the names and life stories of those lost in the tragedy. We get to know the dead through news reports and newspaper profiles and testimonies from friends told to journalists. We take time to think of these people; we look at their faces; we weep for their families.

But with COVID-19, we've all become suddenly much more interested in statistical analysis. Although it's worth noting that NBC managed to tell the stories of 60 people killed by COVID-19, and CNN is gathering obituaries from loved ones on an ongoing basis, this pandemic has largely been framed in the media by data, not sorrow.

There are two likely reasons for this. The first is that the danger remains at large, and it's more comfortable to prioritize facts over feelings right now. Americans are still worrying about their likelihood of contracting the virus, trying to learn the best practices to stay safe, and worrying about their bank balances after catastrophic job losses.

Sponsored

The second is an issue of the sheer, unfathomable numbers involved. COVID-19 has now killed more Americans than the Vietnam War—thousands more, in fact—in a tiny fraction of the time. That number is (currently) roughly the equivalent of 24 9/11s. For many people trying to keep their heads above water, their families safe and their friends in check, it's simply too much loss to contemplate on top of everything else.

Under the circumstances, when Americans do allow themselves to feel emotional, it is often directed towards healthcare workers. As the very personification of the crisis, doctors, nurses and first responders represent the bravery and tenacity we look for in all American heroes. They give us reasons to feel grateful—for both the work they do, and the relief we feel to not be the ones doing it. And we turn to them because it puts some kind of barrier between us and the true, gruesome nightmare of the situation.

America has done this before. In the aftermath of 9/11, we looked to the firefighters in much the same way. Because it was easier to filter our own shock, horror and sadness through the heroes still on the ground, than it was to ponder the thousands of bodies in the rubble that they were tirelessly searching for. (Let's just hope our healthcare workers are given more support down the line than the firefighters were.)

At some point, the gravity and grief of this strangest of periods will inevitably catch up to us all. Publicly acknowledging it together and gathering in some way—whether that's in-person when this is all finally over, or virtually, online, sooner than that—is a necessary step on the path to our nation's recovery. Coming together to feel and acknowledge the loss of so many people isn't just the right thing to do for the thousands of families who've been affected, it's the right thing to do for a nation in shock and struggling to comprehend the enormity of what's just happened.

Though the inherent dangers of the virus are obviously an impediment to any kind of public gathering, most of us have the means to share an experience remotely. On April 18, Global Citizen demonstrated this with the One World: Together at Home event, curated by Lady Gaga. Virtual performances from the likes of Taylor Swift, the Rolling Stones, Billie Eilish and Stevie Wonder connected 270 million viewers worldwide and helped raise over $127 million.

What's more, prior national tragedies have proven that we don't need to physically gather in one location to share a meaningful, healing moment. In 1986, after the nation witnessed the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle live on TV, America grieved together by once again gathering around televisions and giving full attention to the astronauts' memorial service.

The following day—February 1, 1986—the New York Times wrote about the necessity of sharing grief, especially in times of national crisis. UC San Francisco psychiatrist Dr. Mardi Horowitz was quoted as saying: "The psychological purpose of ritual is not just to honor the dead but to re-establish a common bond and counter the sense of being alone in a hostile universe."

That sense of being alone in an inhospitable landscape is familiar to many of us now. Alienation has become the status quo while we shelter in place away from our communities. And because grief heightens the need to connect with others, it’s no wonder we’ve been avoiding these feelings out of a sense of self-preservation. But the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic make the need for collective mourning more important than ever. The longer we reduce the agony of families across the nation to mere numbers on graphs, the harder it will be to reunify as a country when this tragedy is all over.