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The Lives Lost to COVID-19


250,000 lives lost to COVID-19. ­­

The number of lives lost to COVID-19 is staggering. Unimaginable even. But we must guard against a too-distant perspective on these deaths, lest the inconceivable scope leads us to complacency and complacency to more deaths. We must remember that each life lost is a fellow human being, a whole person. That is our challenge in the era of a pandemic.

Three years ago, my friend Howard and I embarked on a project together. In the seeming long-ago days before the pandemic, we began reading the Norwegian author Karl­ Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume fictionalized autobiography, My Struggle. In fact, we began reading this 3,600-page opus so long ago that, in order to remember when we started, I searched through my Director’s Messages for a mention of it. In 2017, I noted in my message on summer reading how the first two volumes painted a scorchingly honest portrayal of the author’s development, compellingly illustrating the complex web of biology and experience that shapes who we are. This month, we finally finished the final, sixth volume. The complete series fleshed out the full picture of Knausgaard’s life, underscoring the impact an individual has on those around him, leaving Howard and me with a breathtaking, all-encompassing understanding of the whole Karl Ove.

Famously, and at times problematically, in Volume 6, the author digresses for some 400 pages to write about the Holocaust. One reason he does so is to comment on the very notion of what it means to know an individual person, and how challenging this can be in the face of huge losses of life such as those we are experiencing now. Such events, he writes, give us a too-distant perspective on the individuals who have died.

If we are far away … we see simply a mass of bodies … Human life as a cluster of mussels clinging to rocks in the sea, … man as a shoal of writhing fish brought gasping to the surface in nets. (Knausgaard, 2018, p. 818-819)

The antidote to this mass depersonalization, Knausgaard argues, is to focus on the story of the individual.

If, however, we stand up close to each individual, so close as to hear each name as it is whispered … and listen attentively to the story of a day in the life of each and every one of them, a day in the company of loved ones, families and friends, an ordinary day in an ordinary place … then the opposite becomes apparent: the [human being as] one. (Knausgaard, 2018, p. 819)

COVID-19 is not to be compared to the Holocaust. But Knausgaard’s antidote to depersonalization is nonetheless relevant. For the millions of Americans who have lost a close friend or loved one to COVID-19, hearing the whispers of a life lived in the company of loved ones can be incredibly comforting, even if those whispers are transmitted over the internet through a video call. Online and in-person funerals, wakes, and shivas provide opportunities to share those stories that underscore the uniqueness of a human life. At one such event, a shiva for a close friend’s father who died of COVID-19 this summer, I heard stories of the mundane—an everyday conversation outside a bagel shop with an old friend—and the profound—after retirement, he volunteered at a funeral home, comforting those in need. These details helped me learn more about my friend and his father. For many Americans—perhaps a majority—memorials like these have helped us achieve an infinitely more intimate understanding of the costs of the pandemic than staggering statistics could ever provide.

There are other ways of maintaining this intimate understanding. The New York Times has chronicled the lives of individuals who have died from COVID-19, some famous but most not. The series, titled “Those We’ve Lost,” commemorates the trials, tribulations, and achievements of a broad cross-section of our neighbors and friends, our fellows and colleagues, our beloved and befriended. They give names to some of those hundreds of thousands of lives and, by extension, help us feel compassion for all the others who are not named.

I am so very grateful that my friend Howard and I are surviving this pandemic, continuing our book club of two over video calls these days. As we move on to our next book (Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf—quite a change of pace), I am also grateful for his friendship and the camaraderie and love from friends and family that are helping me see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. But I also know that for too many Americans, the end of the tunnel did not come soon enough. Let’s make sure to tell the stories of those who have lost their lives to COVID-19, to help understand the human level of this pandemic, and to support those who are still with us.

*This past year has been a difficult one for many people. If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or has concerns about their mental health, there are ways to get help. Visit the NIMH Help for Mental Illnesses page to learn more.