His name was Mike 

Sharing Stories

One of my wife's college friends recently died of COVID-19. He was a husband and father. He was in his 40s. He had no underlying health conditions. His name was Mike.

On a recent walk, my wife shared stories about him. She mentioned how kind he was, how relatable, smart and funny — an all-around good man. She fell silent as we walked, trying to imagine the world without him in it.

At the writing of this column, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security reports more than 83,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19. Around the world, nearly 300,000 have died. Every one of them had a story, a family, friends and a name. Every one of them left people silently struggling to imagine the world without them in it.

As a minister, I have done more funerals than I can name. I wish I could convey what it feels like to look out at a room full of people raw with grief. Their faces are drawn. Their eyes are red. Their hands shake as they reach for their tissues. Their lives have been irrevocably changed, for the worse, and they have gathered for the only salve there is in such a moment: saying the name and telling the stories of the person they love.

The secret to a good funeral is simply taking time to tell stories. We invoke the name of the one who has died. We tell what kind of person they were. We share things they did that made us laugh, we tell of their passions and interests, we offer stories of their accomplishments. In short, we make it personal. No need to spend time in abstractions, philosophizing about life and death. Rather, we focus on the one who is gone and tell of how much we loved them and why. As we do, we often cry. Sometimes we break down and weep. I have come to believe that our tears are the truest prayers of all; they show what we feel but cannot say.

So I have begun to worry about our country's inability to grieve. As tens of thousands have now died, and as more continue to die, we are given only statistical reports. Numbers are printed in the newspaper and scroll across the news channels, but names are rarely offered. Nobody goes on a walk with us and describes each person in detail; how kind, how relatable, how smart and funny they were.

I think of times past when our politicians read names, laid wreaths and held anguished moments of silence. Not so during this pandemic. From the President on down, the subject of real human suffering and the vastness of the grief now spreading through every community is left unacknowledged. It makes me wonder about our humanity. What does it say about us that we do not cry, we do not weep, we do not stop to say their names, tell their stories or struggle to imagine the world without them? What does it say when our imagination is confined to our own convenience? People lament that they don't want to wear a mask. I wonder how that sounds to the families whose lives have been shattered by loss.

COVID-19 is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, and we are now faced with a choice. We can continue to ignore its true cost, speaking only in the language of statistics and data. Or we can return to our humanity, tell the stories of those we love who have died, and question anyone who won't acknowledge the depth of our suffering.

One of my wife's college friends recently died of COVID-19. He was a husband and father. He was in his 40s. He had no underlying health conditions. His name was Mike.

Jeremy Rutledge is a senior minister at Circular Church.

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