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Little sense of shared grief as virus deaths near 100,000

Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

He didn't mention the victims once in his relentless Twitter feed in recent days, focusing instead on explosive political charges against China, Democrats, the media and other perceived foes and targets.

The White House disputed the perception that Trump has shown a lack of empathy, complaining that the media overlooks phone calls and other tender moments with people who have suffered.

"President Trump has provided hope and optimism throughout this unprecedented pandemic -- delivering a message to all Americans, one of comfort, unity and strength because, as he says, 'one life lost is too many,'" said Judd Deere, a spokesman.

"Despite Democrats' and the media's coordinated foolish criticisms, the president's bold actions have saved thousands of lives, provided financial assistance to those in need, and set this great country on a responsible path to reopen."

After more than a month of downplaying the threat, Trump pivoted in mid-March and called himself a "wartime president" leading the nation against an invisible foe. More recently he has praised Americans who defy stay-at-home orders as "warriors" fighting to revive a moribund economy.

Unlike other wars, the nation's dead now are not hallowed or honored, however.

The mounting death toll during the Vietnam War, a staple on the nightly network news broadcasts that then were Americans' chief source of information, was critical to the shifting of public opinion against continued U.S. engagement because it contradicted the success story pitched by generals and successive presidents.

Frances FitzGerald, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of America's war in Vietnam, said the political lines around Trump are drawn so rigidly that grieving the dead has become a political act. And even those most critical of Trump are still cycling through their anger and personal anxiety before they reach the mourning stage.

"I think it will come because right now everybody's still sort of scared, scared for themselves" of catching COVID-19 and thus not yet able "to grieve for others," she said. "So it's a little too early."

There is also the matter of the contagion itself.

Because Americans have been forced to isolate from one another to avoid spreading the virus, there are fewer funerals or other mass gatherings to console one another and share grief.

Many families have said farewells over cellphones or Zoom to quarantined parents and siblings dying in nursing homes and hospitals, adding to the trauma felt by loved ones.

"Grief must be witnessed," said Kessler, the grief expert. "We want to know our loved ones' life and death mattered. We want our family and friends to witness it, our community and we need our country to witness it. And it's not happening on any level."

Kessler has organized a daily online support meeting for those seeking an outlet for their grief, a group that is up to 15,000 members.


But most of the grieving, much like the deaths, takes place out of public view. And the morbid tabulations that appear at the bottom of the TV screen don't come close to conveying the human toll or its scope.

But even for an expert on the psychology of bereavement, one who writes about grief and loss and who studies the COVID-19 carnage, the scale can be hard to grasp.

"Part of it is just that this is so unpleasant to think about, so we always tend to focus on other things," said George Bonanno, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College who runs the school's Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab. "Although some days I have refrigerator trucks down the street with dead bodies, so it's not quite as abstract."

Paul Tarr's 79-year-old mother, Judy, died last month after she contracted the virus in New York. He remembers the lonely walk to a rehabilitation center in Manhattan, where he would give a security guard a black trash bag containing her favorite foods, clean clothes and other items for his mother.

Because of a severe outbreak in the facility, he could not visit her.

She found peace in the final three days of her life when she was able to return home and rest in the bed she had shared with her late husband for 50 years, surrounded by her photos and paintings and a caregiver who knew her.

Tarr, 54, now grieves with his neighbors and his city every night at 7, opening a kitchen window or walking to his rooftop to thank medical workers with bells and cheers.

"I feel a kinship with my fellow New Yorkers," he said.

But he believes the federal government has turned its back, and that some Americans view the pandemic as a regional or urban problem, a far cry from the national solidarity and support he felt after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I don't think much of the country understands what we're going through," he said.

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