As the events of the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 unfolded, I found myself unable to find words to express my frustration, anguish, and uncertainty. I found it hard to believe that the death of 4,000 people a day in the U.S. was overshadowed by a man who simply ignores reality. I’m not even taking a political stand here — facts are not politics, they are facts. People died, families suffered, and our elected leader simply did not care enough to do anything about it. How can a person be so bereft of empathy?
I thought about this as I read a biography of Jane Austen (bear with me — there is a connection!). In the biography, the author quotes a letter Austen wrote to her sister in which she matter of factly notes how a neighbor’s child died at birth and then goes on to other news. As the biographer notes, in the early 1800s such deaths were relatively common and people were used to them (nearly 50% of children did not survive to age five). Still, it strikes me as harsh when any death, and especially that of a child, is so quickly passed over.
Perhaps we as a people are becoming like our 19th century counterparts and becoming immune to death. Over 400,000 people have died from COVID-19 in this past year in the U.S. alone. We have to develop some type of numbness to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer number of people lost. But as anyone who has read this blog in the past knows, while death ends the life of one person, it impacts the lives of so many more. With 400,000 deaths, try to even imagine the impact on families, friends, co-workers, and others impacted by that one death.
It is my belief and one that is backed up by a lot of historical writings, that the death of a child that Jane Austen could be so casual about was not without significance to the family. Indeed, in Austen’s own family, the ongoing health struggles of a step-nephew resulting in his death as a teenager had a dramatic effect on his mother. Many diaries and first-person narratives show that grief is not a recent phenomenon. As I finish a biography of Frederick Douglass, one can see the loss of one of his daughters at a young age never left him or his wife, even as they were surrounded by children and later many grandchildren.
Austen herself never had children, so perhaps she could remain distant on this point. She greatly grieved the loss of her father, to whom she was always close and who remained one of her greatest fans. She knew grief. But knowing grief and supporting others in grief are two different things. Trump has undoubtedly experienced events that could cause him grief, but if he has he seems incapable of connecting his grief with others.
Just last week, as President-elect Biden was on the verge of being inaugurated, his administration had 400 lights put around the reflecting pool in Washington to represent the over 400,000 lost. A simple yet dramatic acknowledgment of what we have lost. People need to be allowed to grieve individually and as a community. We now have a President who buried a young wife and little daughter nearly 50 years ago. Six years ago he buried another son and is still brought to tears thinking about him. Perhaps that is why he takes a moment in the midst of this tragedy to allow for us to grieve as a nation for those who grieve in their families. He uses his own experience of grief to reach out to others in grief.
Let us not become immune to the numbers. One newscaster ends his time every day by highlighting two people who died from COVID just to remember that behind the numbers are people. Perhaps as we prepare our daily prayers we should learn the name of one person who has died from COVID and remember them and their families in our conversation with God. For those who need to look no further than their family for that name, know that many of us are not immune to your loss.