Faith Gong: An invitation to mourn — and hope

On Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, all federal agencies and departments in the United States were closed. For four days, all of the commercial television networks suspended their regular programming for the first time in television history. Many schools, offices, stores, entertainment venues, and factories closed down, and those that remained open held a minute of silence. The reason? Our entire country was observing a national day of mourning proclaimed by President Johnson, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In the United States, official days of mourning are proclaimed by a sitting president in order to allow the country to grieve deaths caused by tragedy, or the deaths of former presidents. Since 1963, there have been six days of mourning for deceased presidents, although none has equaled the scale of President Kennedy’s tribute; typically, presidents are honored by flying flags at half-mast and closing federal offices. Since Kennedy’s killing, only five national days of mourning have commemorated something other than a presidential death: the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (1983), the USS Stark incident (1987), the Oklahoma City bombing (1995), and the September 11 attacks (in 2001, although technically this was a “National Day of Prayer and Remembrance,” which has continued annually.) The total deaths across those five events: 3,471.

National days of mourning are not unique to the United States; almost every other country in the world holds them for similar reasons, and they may last multiple days or even months. To mourn is to express deep sorrow over a loss; when nations experience the collective loss of a leader, or of multiple lives due to a tragedy, it seems fitting — necessary, even — to set aside a time to weep.

Which is why I hope that, at some point, we will have a national day of mourning to allow ourselves to grieve for those who have died from the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States — a number that, as I write this, stands at nearly 300,000 people. (To put this number in perspective, it’s roughly equivalent to losing every single person in the entire city of Greensboro, North Carolina — or Pittsburg, or St. Louis.)

As we wearily approach the one-year anniversary of COVID-19’s appearance on Earth, I have noticed something interesting about the feelings this pandemic seems to elicit. I am only one person (hardly a reliable sample size), but from what I’ve seen, most people tend to respond to COVID-19 with two emotions: anger and anxiety. Apart from those who have lost a loved one, I have not observed much sorrow. This strikes me as odd and unfortunate.

Granted, we humans don’t much like to mourn — especially Americans. We’d much rather take action than sit in grief, distract ourselves with shopping or entertainment rather than feel sad, and work tirelessly to preserve the appearance of youth and vitality rather than acknowledge the finality of death.

Still, 14 other nations have already held national days of mourning for victims of COVID-19: Andorra, Brazil, China, Ecuador, the Holy See, Hong Kong, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macao, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa and Spain. While various towns and congregations in the United States have commemorated pandemic deaths, no national mourning has been proclaimed yet.

It seems to me that Americans, so bitterly divided on just about every issue right now, might be able to come together and find common ground on this: That 300,000 deaths (and counting) in a single year should be acknowledged and mourned.

Even as I typed the previous sentence, I knew I was being too idealistic. I can hear the objections and arguments already: How do we know that number is real — how many of those people had preexisting conditions? Some of those people made poor decisions and weren’t careful — why should I weep for them? More people die each year from cancer and heart disease — why aren’t we mourning them?

To the first two questions, my response is the same: A life is always precious; the loss of a life is always to be mourned. Each one of those 300,000 people loved and were loved and made their own particular mark on the world that can never be duplicated.

And to the last question: By all means, let’s institute an annual national day of mourning in which we set aside time to grieve ALL the lives lost over the previous year, whatever the cause. Because if we never allow ourselves time and space to feel sorrow, we’re at risk of losing an essential aspect of our humanity.

If you’re still with me, you may be wondering what possessed me to write such a depressing column — and during the holidays, too!

Well, according to my liturgical calendar, it’s the season of Advent, when Christians acknowledge that the world is a dark and broken place in need of a savior. My Jewish friends are celebrating Hanukkah and the menorah at the dedication of the second temple that burned for eight days when there was only enough oil to burn for one. And those who belong to neither of those faiths may be marking the Winter Solstice, an ancient observance across many cultures of the darkest day of the year.

Which means that this is the perfect time of year to think about mourning: We are, all of us, waiting in the dark. As we prepare for one more day of quarantine, virtual school, restricted activities, and mask wearing, our mindset isn’t far from the first century Israelites chafing under Roman oppression, the Jewish priests emptying their last drops of oil into the menorah, or the ancient peoples noting with fear each day’s lengthening darkness.

And we have something that they had, too: hope. The grief must be felt (and the fear and anger, too, I suppose), but there is always something on the other side of mourning, and that’s what we wait for even in our sorrow. A baby is born in a stable who fulfills the hopes of generations. The menorah keeps burning for eight days and nights. The days lengthen gradually as the earth revolves nearer the Sun once more. Today, shipments of COVID-19 vaccines are on their way to Vermont. Lights in the darkness.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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