Silent suffering

Pandemic victims die in relative anonymity; there is no public grief


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The rain started weeping just as the drums reached their climax. It’s striking how often something like that happens when Winnipeggers come together to grieve. Go to enough vigils in this city and you start seeing the way each has one moment where the environment itself seems to share in the mourning.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/10/2020 (969 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The rain started weeping just as the drums reached their climax. It’s striking how often something like that happens when Winnipeggers come together to grieve. Go to enough vigils in this city and you start seeing the way each has one moment where the environment itself seems to share in the mourning.

There was the vigil for Tina Fontaine where an eagle took wing over the river. The vigil for Eishia Hudson where an eagle took wing over the highway. The many vigils where the sun came out from behind cloud just as the crowd fell into its shared silence, or where the world seemed to pause long enough to hold space.

And on Tuesday night, as dozens gathered at the corner of Andrews and Boyd, it was the rain. It had been a perfect night for a vigil up until then. Candles flickered in the crisp fall air. People wore masks and did their best to huddle in distanced groups as they gathered at the site of the crash that stole the life of Jennifer Dethmers.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Family and friends attend a vigil for Jennifer Dethmers on Boyd in Winnipeg Tuesday.

Her mother spoke. Her nieces danced. In the middle of the street, the Wandering Sound drum group sang into the gathering dark, the beat rising and expanding until it seemed to well up from the ground itself. The rain wept just as they finished. The crowd rustled as it came down, feeling the moment for what it was.

There are few things more powerful than a vigil, in its ability to connect and to recreate space. It’s not just how it can bring people together in support at the precise moment a community needs it the most. It’s also how it can remake a place desecrated by tragedy into one that carries collective memories of healing, and love, and hope.

I wonder where will we go to remember those lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The thing missing from the pandemic, so far, is a unifying grief. We haven’t really shared it. As of Thursday morning, Manitoba had lost 20 people to the virus. In the grand scheme of things it’s not so many, but we got lucky, and this is not over yet. That number will almost certainly rise in the months to come.

For the most part, we don’t know the names of the people we’ve lost. We don’t know their stories. On a local scale, their deaths were still private; on a global one, there are simply too many. In the United States, more than 200,000 have died, like suffering the losses of the Sept. 11 attacks every day for more than two months.

Nineteen years after that day and there are still memorials and vigils for those who died. How we will remember those lost to COVID-19 in two decades’ time? Families will remember, but the rest of society may simply wish to move on, consigning the final tally to record books and looking away from the full human cost.

It’s too slow. It’s too hidden. There is no wreckage, no Ground Zero, no site to consecrate for the dead. What it takes, it takes from behind closed hospital doors, and nobody wants to know too much about what happens in there. The lives the pandemic takes, it takes in ways that affect some of us forever, but most of us not at all.

So the grief of COVID-19 is seen only in glimpses. A Twitter post: “My uncle died this morning. We could not be with him.” An article about a young man who died. Pages of obituaries from cities when the outbreak was at its peak and hundreds were dying each week. Our grief arrives as content in our news and on our phones.

This lack of an organized framework for shared grief is more consistent with how we treat death by what is generally lumped under “natural causes” than the most daunting acts of God, or the greatest human cruelties or errors. But the pandemic contains aspects of all three: a force of nature wreaked in each body, but enabled by policy.

We shouldn’t forget that many COVID-19 deaths were and will have been avoidable. Vietnam, with a population of nearly 100 million people and far fewer resources than the United States, has so far recorded just 35 deaths to the virus, owing to a rapid and determined response that limited outbreaks and kept its people safe.

Courtesy Jessica Bird/The Canadian Press files Jennifer (Jenny) Dethmers was killed in a weekend crash that also sent her baby to hospital.

Canada’s experience, on this end, falls somewhere in the middle. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the virus shrieked through long-term care facilities in Ontario and Quebec, accounting for a significant number of the deaths. We’ve had successes since then, but we’ve also seen what happens when our resolve breaks.

In this light, the victims of the pandemic should not be forgotten. The grief that attends their loss need not remain private, as if they were felled only by natural causes. We must remember them in order to commit to the lessons COVID-19 has forced us to learn; this will not be the last time we are called to face this kind of threat.

How that ought to look, I don’t know. Only that someday, when the first swelling waves of COVID-19 have subsided, when the mask mandates are gone, when life goes back to being a place that doesn’t require a sensitivity to two metres, hopefully there will be a time and a place to remember those who didn’t make it through.

A vigil, maybe, or a memorial, or just a moment. A chance to come together, after so long spread apart.

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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