COVID Shows the US as a Country Kept from GrievingHistorians in the News
tags: public health, recent history, grief, COVID-19, Civic Ritual
Zoom funerals—I attended two—were haunting affairs. One stage-managed, with prerecorded video addresses and little downtime; the other facilitated toward connection by a skilled organizer, allowing space for tears and new knowledge. So different, and yet I attended both from the same spot on my sublet couch before taking a masked walk to vent the energy that I could not spend in hugging and talking with others once the cameras clicked off. Those Zoom funerals epitomized pandemic life and pandemic death: isolated yet connected, heartrending yet oddly unreal. So many people had to grieve this way, and yet it was profoundly alienating.
In this moment, when plague reality continues to underscore how under-cared-for we all are, reading After Life: A Collective History of Loss and Redemption in Pandemic America has been a balm. It soothed like the first in-person funeral after so much death: gathering together people and their stories and different and overlapping memories and giving me permission to grieve, to cry into my mask, for the friend who was gone but also for the millions of others, for all the lost moments of our lives.
Edited by historians Rhae Lynn Barnes, Keri Leigh Merritt, and Yohuru Williams, After Life is a collection of essays inspired by the Works Progress Administration’s writers project to document life through the Great Depression. Beginning in January 2021, the editors asked writers “to try and understand America in a moment that seemed, at once, to be both rapidly descending into something long feared and, simultaneously, to be rebirthing into something wondrous at all costs.” Those writers, most of them historians or scholars of some kind, attempt to provide not only narrative but also missing context for this moment, for its deep inequalities, for its violences slow and fast, and for the inevitability of its unwillingness to deal with Covid-19.
We are so bad at grieving in this country, and yet there is so much to mourn in America. But so much of what we must grieve for is so ugly, and implicates so many of us. The writers of After Life teach us American history once again—history many of us might think we know, through personal stories and genealogies of families, blood and chosen and estranged. They tell it through stories of immigration and deindustrialization, of the fight to protect the water at Standing Rock and the Confederate-flag-bearing putschists storming the Capitol, and most of all of the outpouring of rage and mourning after the killing of George Floyd. They grieve for family and friends and neighbors, and they grieve for the millions lost without fanfare over hundreds of years, thrown overboard from an enslaver’s ship or left to bake in the sun or tossed in a shallow grave. In remembering, they ask: Whose deaths do we mourn? Whose lives, in philosopher Judith Butler’s terms, do we consider grievable?
Death is an uncomfortable subject for Americans, wrote historian and lifelong organizer Gwendolyn Midlo-Hall—who died shortly after I finished reading this book—in her contribution. “Nobody dies here. They pass away.” Yet the pandemic, she noted, forced us to contemplate the possibility of our own sickness and death, to live daily with the knowledge that death was all around us, and it forced us to do the uncomfortable: to talk about death.
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