Eulogy for 100,000

I wake this morning to the same reality with which I went to bed last night. I want to find words of comfort for a hurting world. I am, after all, an eulogist. Part of my job is to speak comfort and peace in the face of pain and grief and loss. But I am at a loss for words.

The poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” by Warsan shire rolls in the back of my mind:

“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered

For the moment, however, the whole world seems too big to contemplate. I stare at the graphic on the Washington Post web site:

New York City area: more than 35,000 deaths
Chicago area: more than 4,600 deaths
Boston area: more than 4600 deaths
Detroit area: more than 4100 deaths
Washington D.C. area: more than 2,300
Los Angeles area: more than 2,200 deaths
Denver area: more than 900 deaths
New Orleans area: more than 1200 deaths
Seattle area more: than 750 deaths

I read the headlines in our local newspaper:

“RapidRid suspends operations for two weeks after third driver contracts COVID-19”
“Monument Health projects West River COVID-19 cases will nearly triple in the next two weeks.”

I run my fingers across the keyboard of my computer:

50 dead in South Dakota
102,000 dead in the United States
356,000 dead worldwide

“where does it hurt?

How do we even begin to fathom the depth of grief that has come across our world? In just there months our nation has lost more lives than the number of US servicemen and women killed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan - 44 years of fighting. 102,000 family systems thrown into grief and mourning over lives cut short by a virus that most of us had not even heard of when this year began.

And that is not all of the grief.

A million and a half Americans have been infected.
More than 36 million have filed initial unemployment claims. Millions more are unemployed at least temporarily.

How does one respond to such grief?

“where does it hurt?

When I was in grade school we were taught Walt Whitman’s elegy in honor of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Three verses, each ending with the same words, “Fallen cold and dead.” When I was an elementary school student, just reading those words out loud made me shiver. They seemed out of place in our classroom. There were giggles at the exaggeration and over dramatic reading:

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
                            But I with mournful tread,
                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

I now know, however, that Whitman found words to express the grief of a nation as it inched slowly toward recovery.

Who will speak the words to express the grief of our nation, of our world?

There is no eulogy for statistics. The numbers simply overwhelm. It is in the stories of the individuals that we find clues that point toward healing.

The father who was whisked away from his family in an ambulance to a hospital where they could not visit him in his dying hours. The janitor who fell ill at work and never came home. The nurse suddenly become patient for whom the ventilator came too late. The grandmother whose nursing home banned visits in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. The list goes on and on.

“where does it hurt?

As a pastor, I know that we need to speak of grief. I know that it is not healthy to pretend that it does not hurt. I know that grief denied is only grief delayed. I also know that this is not the moment for gathering.

When the towers fell on 9/11, the numbers were much smaller, but we got together. We held special worship services. We prayed for those who had died and we prayed with those who were grieving.

These days we turn to social media to livestream a poor substitute for a real funeral and gather in small groups with masks and physical distance to say muffled prayers over the graves. We can’t even follow our rituals and traditions.There are no visitations. There are no funeral lunches. There is no one to wipe away the tears, not even someone to hand you a tissue. And the shelves in the store once packed with every size of box of tissues now stands bare. And the pews in the church are empty.

But we will not despair.

We are survivors.

Survivors do not forget. Survivors do not ignore the pain. Survivors endure. When they cannot make it day by day they go forward minute by minute, refusing to forget, refusing to “get over it,” refusing to be quiet.

As the news of this pandemic was just reaching us, before we had any understanding of how it would affect us, I stood at the front of the sanctuary with a small pot of ashes in my hand - the remains of last year’s palm branches, burned by our confirmands. I put my thumb into the ashes and touched the foreheads of the congregants one by one, making the sign of the cross. It was a reminder of our mortality. I’ve been doing that for years and years. I try to look the people I serve in the eyes and remind myself of how precious each individual is. I think of their stories as they come forward to receive the ashes. I notice the ones who were there last year and are gone this year.

When we ask, “where does it hurt?” and when the answer is “everywhere, everywhere, everywhere,” then it is time to pick up the shattered pieces of this life and form them into a cross.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!