As the sun sails northward and we stand in the doorway known as spring, between a stark winter and a hopeful-looking summer, there is a passion to embrace life again after years of pandemic constraints.
First, though, we have unfinished emotional business. As individuals and as a country, we must find a way to memorialize this loss in our lives. Now that the pandemic seems to be abating, we need to think about how we want to keep alive the memory of those who died of Covid-19 these past two years. So many closed their eyes without saying goodbye, so many took a last breath with very little comfort from loved ones and very little comforting ritual for the community of friends left behind.
According to NPR, Marked By COVID, a grass-roots group, is advocating for a national day of remembrance to honor those who died. The group supports the idea of an annual event, stating that the pandemic, which touched us all, should not be a footnote to the history of our time on earth.
Janeth Nuñez del Prado, a New Mexico resident who was interviewed by NPR, was waiting for her father to visit from Bolivia when she got word that he died of the virus, alone in a hospital, on a ventilator.
“It really interrupts the grieving process,” Nuñez del Prado said. “We have these rituals for a reason, because they help us heal. And in the absence of that, it’s just really, really hard.” Nuñez del Prado, a social worker and trauma therapist, is now channeling her grief into lobbying for a national Covid Memorial Day on the first Monday of March each year, as well as trying to build memorials in cities all over the country.
“I know that a key to healing from trauma is to hold space, to feel what you need to feel,” she said, “and to do this in community.” She is working with Marked By COVID to support plans for a memorial.
Trauma is an overused word, but there has been suffering everywhere during the past two years, and memorials would be appropriate and significant.
The survivors of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 did not look back. Once it was over, they never wanted to think about it again, and so the losses were never fully acknowledged and the healing never completed. According to Nancy Bristow, author of “American Pandemic: The Lost World of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” doctors didn’t want to think about the loss, because it reminded them of the limitations of “modern” science. Survivors couldn’t bear to think of the awful contagion, the bodies piled outside hospitals in our big cities. And our government, under President Woodrow Wilson, didn’t want to think about the pandemic, because it drew attention away from support for World War I — which helped spread infections around the world.
No one really wanted to talk or write about what it was like to live through the flu. Newspaper articles about it didn’t describe the personal stories of those who died or survived, says J. Alex Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan and one of the editors in chief of “The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia.”
“It’s striking to me,” Navarro says. “I’ve read . . . probably thousands of newspaper articles on influenza from all these cities throughout the pandemic, and I can list off the ones that stand out, that talk about the personal tragedies of common folk, because they’re just so few and far between.” Fifty million people died around the world, and some 650,000 Americans perished here at home.
Covid-19 is blowing right past those numbers, as we approach 1 million dead in America in just these two years.
Everything in its own season. We have suffered and we have lost, and we have grieved.
And still it is not over. But now is the time to begin planning how to best remember this pandemic. There were the patients, and the doctors who served at their own peril, and all the scientists who produced extraordinarily effective vaccines with unprecedented speed. I like the idea of a day on the calendar when we stop and hold our loved ones in our hearts.
We need to remember so that we can prepare ourselves for future pandemics. We need to remember so that we can honor the people who died too soon, and heal the emotional scars of isolation and anxiety.
Copyright 2022 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.