Shortly before Christmas last year, I sent a message to Jeff Sharlet, a writer I don’t know, thanking him for memorializing the dead. It was a Sunday night, past 2 a.m., and though I can’t remember the specific thing keeping me awake I know its basic contours. Most every feeling I’ve had this year is a shifting arrangement of terrible, grasping dread and raw disbelief. (And fury, of which I have oceans.) He got back to me shortly before 4 a.m.; he was on the “late shift,” he said, working on a story about what was at that time the comparatively paltry 317,816 Americans who had died of covid-19.
Through much of the pandemic Sharlet posted frequently on Twitter about those people. He published their photographs, their nicknames, retweeted family members as they grieved. I found small tributes like his oddly comforting, a fleeting alignment between the infinite scroll and the reality outside—a counterpoint to the horrible numbness of watching staggering numbers run down my screen at every hour of every day.
“Better timing than you know,” Sharlet wrote to me in reply when I told him unsolicited in the middle of the night how much I appreciated those posts. “Shortly before your message someone tweeted at me that they tune me out … they don’t want to think about all the dead at the end of the day.” Declining to engage with tragedy is an understandable impulse, and one that will probably become more common in the coming months. The alleged end of the pandemic is on the horizon. Who would want to involuntarily continue to relive the most heartbreaking of possible years?
For his story, published in Esquire this March on the loose anniversary of the pandemic’s spread across the U.S., Sharlet spoke to those left behind when nine people contracted the no-longer-novel coronavirus and did not survive. In a year that made a statistician out of everybody I did an involuntary calculation, figuring the profiles accounted for a little more than .00001% of the people we’ve lost as of this week. “It’s as if there has been a rapture,” Sharlet noted in the piece. But those who are left behind are so stunned, he wrote, we “speak not of those who died gasping or those who live now with scar-laced lungs” but of the “smaller losses”—a coffee with a new acquaintance, a cold beer in a near-empty bar, a pool party. The deficit of what Maria Bustillos, writing shortly after the death of her mother, called “the incalculable”: “All the time we didn’t get to be together, if you were to add it up.”
Nearly one-fifth of the U.S. population has been vaccinated. The longest winter has given way, in many parts of the country, to a relatively jubilant spring. My friends and I have begun to fixate on all the wonderful things we’re going to do now that “when this is all over” appears to be a tangible point, a date we can name. But add up the calculable if inscrutable losses of human life and the incalculable joys we’ll never have and it does feel a little bit like the rapture, in the sense that things look pretty dire for those of us who are left.
As much as one-third of the population knows someone who died from the coronavirus, which doesn’t account for the people who were unable or afraid to access treatment for other conditions when the medical system was overwhelmed and they were completely alone. Millions of people, most of them women, are unlikely to return to the workforce. The number of Americans living in poverty increased by 8 million over the last year. And last week, scientists announced the results of a devastating study of 230,000 patients, finding that one in three people who managed to survive covid-19 were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within six months.
Even if a person has survived the pandemic, people they love are dead, permanently altered, completely fucked. Four months ago I was drawn to individual memorials because I craved a sense of human proportion. Now, staring down the oft-invoked “return to normalcy,” I don’t know how to metabolize such a towering sense of collective grief, and one that’s infused practically everything I’ve ever known. The only thing I’ve seen that comes close to capturing the feeling is a recent viral meme: a collection of paparazzi photographs featuring haggard-looking celebrities staring into the middle distance. “Just got vaccinated,” the caption reads. “This summer is about to be lit!”
The cognitive dissonance has been exacerbated recently by endless advice-giving; the internet’s tendency to inflate personal experience and manufacture trends, a style which has become incongruous to the point of absurdity over the last year. To take just one example, the New York Times’ “At Home” section, a collection of stories intended to help the paper’s readership develop hobbies and stave off boredom within the confines of lockdown, launched last year around the same time refrigerated trucks appeared around the city to keep the mountains of dead from decaying too fast. In part this is a function of the people who assign these kinds of stories and generate blogs being, for the most part, insulated from the baldest forms of pandemic terror—I certainly spent the majority of 2020 in my apartment, making bread and watching prestige TV. But I think it’s also a human impulse to try to divide and conquer the incomprehensible, as if a series of small decisions about tonight’s dinner or tomorrow’s at-home workout could fill a broader psychic void.
Previously unimaginable atrocities and shattering disruptions in how people live have been distilled into articles about how to work from home without ruining your back or more effectively disinfect your kitchen. Recently, those have given way to stories on how to secure a vaccine appointment and an entire genre of work addressing post-lockdown anxiety, as if the pandemic’s impact was a shift in American’s preferences and tastes for social interaction—a lifestyle instead of a roiling and preventable mass casualty event that killed half a million in this country and will in all likelihood define the rest of our lives.
To deal with the disquiet of the “After Times,” Vogue recommends exercise and journaling. Buzzfeed spoke to a variety of Americans concerned about resuming commutes and losing the focus social isolation allowed. In Vox, psychologists provide readers with tips on managing their new fear of crowds by practicing mindfulness. A reader writes to The Cut’s “Ask Polly” column and is told to practice radical acceptance, to acknowledge she prefers to be “picky” in her relationships and would be happy spending most nights in front of the television curled up with her pets.
The existential terror hovers to varying degrees around the edges of these stories, and the anxiety about what comes next is real. But there’s still such a lack of useful language to describe what the hell happened, and what we’re supposed to be doing now. In the place of a shared sense of reality or collective expression of mourning, I see a torrent of advice on how a person who managed to survive can feel more self-actualized once they return to the shuffle between the office and after-work drinks. To me, this looks like denial, the first tentative step towards what I’m told are seven distinct stages of grief.
It’s always been true that the advice lifestyle writers offer tends to obscure more difficult realities. Financial bloggers recommend investing early and forgoing the morning latte as if thrifty habits could combat the forces that have conspired to grant 50 people control of almost half of the United States’ wealth. Tactics that claim to combat burnout or encourage self-care rarely dwell on how, exactly, most Americans have come to work harder for less money than in generations before. Most service journalism is a workaround, a way of rendering specific and material failures as issues of personal choice. There’s no life hack that gets around the knowledge your government was happy to let a vast swath of its population die, no radical acceptance of such a monumental chain of loss. Reading pages filled with recommendations on navigating a slightly altered future feels like receiving a missive from another world—a final and devastating cruelty that we’d all have to soldier on pretending the loss isn’t collective and omnipresent, that in the end not so much has really changed.
And anyway, recalibrating towards normal implies there’s something to get back to, that the pandemic was a thing with a tidy beginning and end. Covid-19 is not a phase or an era or a series of habits to be unlearned. It was a largely preventable horror that altered the fabric of reality and there are people responsible: For refusing aid, for lying about the threat, for profiting off of suffering. They’re the people best served by a country too traumatized to keep looking clearly at the dead, a dazed and defeated group of people invested enough in their own personal journeys towards normalcy they slowly begin to forget that this wasn’t just something that happened but was done, repeatedly and intentionally, to them.