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‘Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun’: our national bereavement

Almost a year ago, as the death toll from coronavirus began its inexorable climb, when the sounds of ambulance sirens broke the gray morning silence, when the shelves of cold rooms were filled with plastic shrouded bodies, I began a column with the mournful poem “Stop all the Clocks,” by W.H. Auden. It seems more relevant now than before. He wrote:

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“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.

Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,

Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week, my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one,

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;

For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

But now, finally, as the end of this crisis nears, how can we not pause, if only for a moment, to consider the meaning of the loss of some 600 thousand Americans, and, of course, those who are left behind. The immensity of their grief, their anguish, is unimaginable.

In a recent NYT op ed piece, Allison Gilbert asked, “What is the scope of our national loss?” Researchers, she points out, estimate that the number of the bereaved is 5 million Americans. But, in truth, it is much higher. In a recent study, Ashton Verderly, professor at Pennsylvania State University, introduced what he referred to as the COVID-19 Bereavement Multiplier, meaning that for every person who died from the virus, nine loved ones were left behind. That would include spouses, siblings, parents, children and grandparents. If you include other relatives and friends, you will likely get 10 times that number or more, dwarfing the initial estimated five million.

Gilbert wrote, “grief plays out in waves across one’s life and has no clear ending.” I would add that it is an emotion from which there is no surcease, and is always with us no matter the passage of time.

Consider a recent study which estimates that some 37,000 children in the U.S. have lost a loved one, and the impact of their grief is both emotional and physical. Children who lose a parent suffer consequences that ripple through their lives, like a stone dropped into a still pond, and can include lower to failing grades, depression, as well as increased experimentation with drugs. By some estimates, 90 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system report having lost at least one loved one to COVID-19 or other causes.

Gilbert suggests that there should be a White House office of bereavement care, one that would benefit families and individuals who have lost loved ones not only to COVID-19 but to other national tragedies such as gun violence. She believes that the Biden administration would be open to viewing grief as a threat to overall well-being, and would “pave the way for prevention efforts – including financial assistance – that could help individuals navigate life altering changes …”

In the opinion of Dr. Toni Miles, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia, “we need systemic change to protect those who are left behind. Grief should be investigated the same way we examine other public health indicators …”

I am aware that to reference scientists when discussing bereavement is to sound detached and dryly clinical, hence Auden’s moving and elegant words. Please, “stop all the clocks … and dismantle the sun.”

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.