First, she forgot our names. After that, my mother and I were forced to watch my grandmother slowly decay. Dementia robbed her of her memory, her mobility, and eventually, it stole the words right out of her mouth. At some point, I stopped visiting her. I couldn’t take the sight of her, and I hated myself for it. A once lively and vibrant woman was reduced to a thin shell of her former self. But in the end, it wasn’t dementia that took her. She passed on March 31st, 2020. She was amongst the many who lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic. She died alone in a hospital bed with no one to comfort her.
It’s been a little over a year now, and my grandmother’s story is now one of many similar tragedies. 2020 brought us face to face with death on a scale we haven’t seen for some time. Most of us are uncomfortable with death because many of us are desensitized to it. We live in a culture of death, and yet despite its pervasive presence, we still shudder when it draws near. We try to hold death at a distance. We see it all the time, but as long as it stays on TV or in the news, we rarely have to face its grim reality. There was a time when death was as close to us as it is pervasive in our culture today. 150 years ago, it was common for loved ones to pass at home and for families to oversee the body’s preparation. Many of us no longer know what it’s like to deal with death so closely. People go away to die, and we hire professionals to take the bodies away for burial. We have become so desensitized to death that when forced to face its reality, we lack the resources to do so. Reading about piles of corpses in a distant time and place is nothing compared to seeing tractor-trailers full of bodies in your neighborhood. COVID-19 brought death home again. In a sense, it re-sensitized us. By reminding us of its bitter presence, it forced us to grapple with the reality of our own mortality.
I realize now that my own inability to visit my grandmother resulted from my stunted relationship with death. To look at her withered hands, to lock eyes with her blank stare, was to see me. By looking at her, I was forced to grapple with the truth. One day my youth will betray me, and I too will be carted off to some distant place to decay and die. I stayed away because I didn’t know how to stare death in the face. To visit her was to consider my own end and, as a result, reflect on how I was currently living.
Perhaps this is why we distance ourselves from death. Our mortality is a reminder that our lives are short, and that each moment is a precious gift that will one day expire. Death forces us to consider how we are using that special time. The wisdom literature of the Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes this point in the words of Qohelet, the primary voice in the book of Ecclesiastes. Qohelet declares that “it’s better to go to a funeral than to attend a feast; funerals remind us that we all must die.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) This is a sobering bit of wisdom. By holding death at a distance, we trick ourselves into forgetting that we are going to die.
It is no wonder that a culture desensitized to death is also a culture obsessed with entertainment. Because we cannot face our mortality, we fill our time with fun and distraction. We want the good times to last forever. We don’t want to picture ourselves bedridden and awaiting our end. We want to live as if we drank from the fountain of youth. As a result, we forgo, considering how we live, we forsake inward moral reflection. We consume bread and circus to put off thinking about our moral responsibilities.
But 2020 shattered these illusions and brought death to our doorstep. Every day was a walking reminder that death was possible and always inevitable. 2020 reminded us “that we all must die.” With nowhere to go and nothing to do, we had no choice but to look inward. We took stock of our lives and our mortality. By doing so, we were reminded of a fundamental truth. Death reminds us of our shared humanity. Death separates us from one another and paradoxically binds us closer together. 2020 reminded us of our shared humanity. We suffered together, we lost together, and we banded together to stare death in the face. For a brief moment, we were united. Our political, social, and ethnic divides seemed to evaporate in light of the onslaught we faced. We were reminded of our moral responsibility to work together for the common good. We wore masks, we stood 6-feet apart, we considered our fellow man. All because we had to deal with the reality of death.
As we prepare to make our way back to whatever semblance of normalcy awaits us in a post-pandemic world, we will be tempted to forget the lessons 2020 taught. If we are not careful, we risk distancing ourselves from death and, as a result, forgetting our moral responsibility and our shared humanity. Death makes us uncomfortable but avoiding it is not an option. We cannot return to normal in that sense. We have stared into the abyss and found that for all its darkness, it still has something to teach us. We can try to avoid it, but ultimately, we know what we are avoiding our responsibility. We all die, and ironically, if we learn to face that truth, we just might remember how to live.