17 bodies were removed from one New Jersey care home after a tip off.
There are sometimes sentences that stay with you for years or a lifetime after reading them. It can take that long to come to terms with them. For Norman Geras in The Contract of Mutual Indifference it was this sentence describing the scene as a column of Jews was being marched for deportation to a camp:
…a women in a flowered housecoat was watering plants in window boxes. She must have seen the procession below, but she carried on watering her flowers. In Meg Jensen’s brilliant and moving study, The Art and Science of Trauma and the Autobiographical
Negotiated Truths, there is a chapter called Annihilation and Integration in Collective Posttraumatic Monuments, Testimonies, and Literary Texts, which described The National Monument for Peace and Justice otherwise known as the “Lynching Memorial” that marks the 4400 African Americans “hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.” The memorial has 800 columns representing the 800 counties in which the killings took place. Professor Jensen writes: “These columns, we are told, lie in wait for representatives of each documented county to collect them and erect a memorial of their own in situ.” A few pages on, at the beginning of the final chapter, she quotes Marmee’s dictum from Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women: “Hope and Keep busy. ” In the absence of a single, reliable cure for all those who suffer from trauma-related disorders, Marmee’s words are particularly useful” Jensen writes. The flowered housecoat. The 800 counties. Hope and Keep Busy. 17 bodies removed.
In the study of the holocaust we use a prism developed by Raul Hilberg to explain the triangle of the Victim, Perpetrator and the Bystander and think about agency and intention. For 17 bodies (the victims) to be accumulated in a care home over a period of time the contract of mutual indifference must have operated. People were passive bystanders. The person who made the decision to leave the bodies to pile up is the perpetrator. Professor Geras mapped out the meaning of the position of the bystander through his conception of the contract of mutual indifference. What are the consequences of looking on and knowing but not acting on that knowledge? In the case of the care home someone did act and reported what was happening. The perpetrators and the bystanders will have to live with their guilt and will be judged, perhaps also punished.
For the victims and their families, we will not know the consequences of what happened for a long time.
It will take years, perhaps decades, for the full mental health impact of the Covidspring to be clear. Mental health problems are deepening and being made worse by the lived experience of solitude and by the endless information streams competing to bring the worst news possible. There has rightly been an emphasis in the coverage of this crisis on people who were already suffering from problems, but there are certain events in life which challenge the fabric of the mental health of everyone. For most people the most powerful of these is the death of someone close to you. Death in the time of the corona virus has been reported in a variety ways. In some cases people have been allowed to visit or see the people they love before they die. In many more cases that has not been possible. The rituals of death and the structures for our grief that these rituals provide, have been suspended for the duration of the crisis. But the feelings cannot be curtailed so easily. Grief cannot be shutdown by a public health emergency.
In normal times there would be 17 funerals arranged. In most cases that is not happening now. You cannot be with people who are ill before they die. You cannot fill the initial time of grief with hope and keeping busy by arranging things and paying respects. Grief is a feeling that needs to be let out. It circles around you waiting for a moment to appear and if it is pushed down deeper inside it festers and waits. Then in a moment, often a long time afterwards and often on an especially beautiful spring morning, it engulfs you. There are triggers. When we buried my mother, I hoped and kept busy by creating an elaborate photo presentation which was designed to last through the first of Bach’s Cello suites. One of my mother’s favourite pieces of music. Looking back it was vaguely absurd but it was unusual. My mother would have liked the craziness of it. Her abiding fear was being bored. We would frequently come home from school to find that all the furniture had been re-arranged because she had been bored. The problem at the memorial service was that it was overseen by a rather nervous and inexperienced priest and he was worried that my elaborate slide show and the Cello suite was taking too long so he cut it off. I was livid but you cannot stand up in a chapel of remembrance and start yelling over your mother’s coffin at the priest to leave your power point on. Looking back I wish I had.
Bach’s Cello suite remains a trigger to be first a little angry at the priest, and then to feel grief come swift and overwhelming. And sometimes it comes unannounced.
I have these memories in which to root my grief. There are other memories for the death of my father and my sister. Sometimes it is not immediately clear to me which grief is coming at a particular moment but then it forms into a memory and most often that memory is rooted in the time of the funeral, before and just after. I am sure there is a great body of scholarly work on why these rituals of death seem to work and matter so deeply.
They are not taking place now. The 17 bodies in New Jersey and many tens of thousands of others will not having partings, they will not have these rituals to root their memories in. There will be an absence as there is when people die in war and there are no remains to send home. In the weeks and months to come this, along with a myriad of other profound mental health issues, will be the second wave of the impact of the COVID-19 virus. A wave of depression, of anger, of grief that will continue long after the economic consequences of this terrible spring will have passed, that will hit people when they least expect it and there maybe another kind of epidemic. An epidemic of unprocessed sadness and grief.