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OPINION

Uniting America through mourning

On Oct. 19, more than 20 houses of worship will gather to mourn those lost to COVID-19 and unite through a peaceful candlelight vigil.

Samuel Nunez cries as he eulogizes his daughter Lydia Nunez on July 21, who died from COVID-19, during a funeral service in memory of her at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Los Angeles, on July 21.
Samuel Nunez cries as he eulogizes his daughter Lydia Nunez on July 21, who died from COVID-19, during a funeral service in memory of her at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Los Angeles, on July 21.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Bible says, “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” 2020 has been a season of heartbreaking loss — more than 216,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 — coupled with the inability to mourn those losses together, a gaping wound for an already-too-divided country. We need to bridge the distance between us and heal together through the mourning process — even if socially distanced. Surely as our country has made whole sectors of our economy virtual, we can find a way during the coronavirus pandemic to mourn as one — 6 feet apart, with masks, and even online.

We are helping to galvanize a first-in-the-nation series of vigils, Mourning into Unity, organized by the faith community and medical professionals to demonstrate the healing power of mourning and our commitment to be one nation. On Oct. 19, more than 20 houses of worship across the nation will gather to mourn and unite through a peaceful candlelight vigil. The goal is to bring us together to remember family, friends, and fellow Americans, plus the social losses of this pandemic: our jobs, everyday life, our work and school lives.

One of us became a physician and swore the Physician’s Pledge, committing as the “first consideration” the “health and well-being of the patient,” and dedicating his life to “the service of humanity.” The other went to seminary and accepted the call to nurture the spirit, heal souls, and proclaim unity. One of us cares for patients and communities, the other for the flock of the faithful and the needy within the larger community. Together we know, in theory and in practice, how essential it is in healing body and soul for us to mourn our losses.

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Mourning is essential medicine for those who have experienced loss. Medical students study and practice how to sit with families experiencing tragedy. COVID-19 has stripped away many of those best practices, leaving in its place the antiseptic coldness of Zoom farewells and condolences. Researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center have offered new guidance for front-line medical workers to “comfort bereaved families,” but nothing replaces the shared experience of mourning so essential to families — and medical professionals and clergy who are ourselves under stress.

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Mourning is a core ritual of every major religion and society. As the Rev. Ed Bacon, pastor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, said so eloquently, “The great religions of the world have in common the call to grieve. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they will become protected.’ ” Mourning finds new hope and creates a sense of community, a sense that we are in this together.

After Oklahoma City, after 9/11, during and after wars, and the deaths of political leaders, we’ve always come together to heal and to grieve as one nation. But in 2020, when we’ve lost more Americans in less than a year than in any equivalent period of time since WWII, we’ve grieved alone. We’ve endured alone.

By gathering as one, we reclaim our unity and commitment to peace — in our lives, in our democracy, and among our fellow citizens. The Mourning into Unity project conjoins churches, synagogues, and mosques and their congregants into a single tapestry of unity for peaceful candlelight vigils, led by faith and health care leaders, designed to be restorative, transformative, unifying. Because of the pandemic, the vigils will be held outdoors with mandated physical distancing and masks. Others may join safely from home to see, hear, and be with the vigils via social media.

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Healing our irreplaceable nation begins with mourning. Unity can follow — helping to make ourselves whole in spirit so we can make America whole in practice.

Dr. Gary Slutkin is the founder of Cure Global Violence. The Rev. Russell L. Meyer is executive director of the Florida Council of Churches.