To witness is to protect and preserve experience from being denied out of existence. As mourners we go through phases of protest, not the least of which is the fight to not have our grief taken away from us.
Back in September, 2020 when the total number estimated dead was 673,911, I was in our nation’s capitol biking through the mall when I saw the field of penants. From a distance, I thought it was a sea of white tulips, but then the illusion faded into the stark reality that it was. When I stopped and inspected some of the flags, reading short descriptions of the deceased, I felt a wave of grief wash over me. I sat down.
“Life goes on,” said a security guard watching me. He was a young man wearing mirrored sunglasses. I paused and reflected for a moment. I felt anger well up inside me. “Yes, it does. But not for them, will it?” I waved my arm over the field. I watched to see his response, which was silence, and wondered if behind the sunglasses there may have been a flicker of empathy.
Our death denying culture is, perhaps more than ever, suffering from a deficit of basic empathy. Empathy in the context of bereavement, does not deny the reality of mortality or seek to build rankings or hierarchies of grief. It does not disenfranchise and exploit those who have lost so much due to sickness, death, forms of social, political, and economic inequality. This article explores these consequential issues and throws a bright light on how our society should use our collective grief to generate purposeful and compassionate action in these trying times.