There are certain phone calls you’ll never forget — especially the ones that ring at 12:45 a.m. with the caller ID “North Shore Medical Ctr.”
“This is Dr. K---. Are you Jonas Chaves’s nephew?”
“I’m sorry to tell you your uncle just expired.”
When my Uncle Jonas became one of 171 people who died in Massachusetts from COVID-19 complications on April 18, 2020, it was only a day after he tested positive and a month into the lockdown in Massachusetts.
For our family, it was a gut punch, the moment COVID became painfully real — no longer just an arm’s length worry from news reports about the spreading, lethal virus. Most heartbreaking of all was the realization that my uncle was at the wrong place at the wrong time and it had cost him his life. Jonas was in a long-term care facility in Salem receiving IV antibiotics for a stubborn infection his independent living community couldn’t treat. His stay coincided with a surge in positive cases at the facility where he was being treated.
Little did we know that a year later, the country’s COVID-19 death toll would be closing in on 600,000. For those of us in our seventh decade, it’s hard to remember a year when death was so in your face from morning to night — from pages of obituaries in the morning paper to the nightly news with its images of mobile morgues parked outside overwhelmed hospitals and cemetery workers burying bodies as fast as possible with few mourners present.
So it was no surprise that preliminary estimates reveal more people died in this country in 2020 than any other year since full records began being kept. And, yet, we still avoid the subject, says Brandeis University anthropologist Anita Hannig. Despite numbers so large they are difficult to grasp, she says she’s “unsure that Americans’ discomfort with and avoidance of death as a topic has ultimately changed.”
I hadn’t thought much about America’s death taboo until the early 1990s, when I was Ted Koppel’s senior producer on ABC News Nightline. One night after a broadcast, Koppel gave me a ride home and mentioned how openly and comfortably people seemed to discuss death in Britain, where he lived until he was 13. After his family moved to America, Koppel noticed that death was kept in the shadows, spoken about in whispers. He wondered whether America’s fear of death had the makings of a Nightline. But on that ride, neither of us came up with a way into the story.
We did a few years later, though, when I stumbled on a story in the Globe’s Living section about Morrie Schwartz, a retired Brandeis professor who was dying of ALS and wanted to give his final lesson: helping Americans become more comfortable talking about death. We booked him on Nightline, one of Schwartz’s former students happened to see the interview, and that became the seed for Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie. But as Albom recently wrote, the social distancing during the pandemic was the polar opposite of what Schwartz called our need for human connection and represented a “creeping disconnect of our humanity.”
“We just don’t have a healthy relationship with our mortality,” Hannig says. “We think of death as a failure and scandal and surround ourselves with so many fantasies of immortality” — like freezing body parts for future revival, or trying to download our brains.
One of the ironies of this death-saturated pandemic, Hannig says, is that the average American has in some ways become further removed from death. Restricted from hospitals and nursing homes, family members have been robbed of those intimate moments we used to take for granted — holding the hand of a dying relative or bearing witness at the cemetery as a loved one is lowered into the earth.
Five years ago, I was invited to Cambridge to sit around a long, rectangular table by Michael Hebb, who launched DeathOverDinner.org, a nonprofit that has gathered people around hundreds of thousands of dinner tables to talk about death. Hebb says that “medicine is inherently wired to avoid our own mortality,” focusing on saving people’s lives. And yet, “In many ways, [death] is what gives our lives meaning — the fact that we’re mortal.”
COVID-19 upended daily life over the last year. At no other time in our lives has death been such a constant visitor. Perhaps the pandemic will force us to gradually pry open the cocoon that has protected us from confronting our own mortality. Properly acknowledging deaths from COVID-19 is a start.
A year ago, because of the fears of virus transmission, our family was strongly discouraged from attending Uncle Jonas’s funeral. Instead, an honor guard of masked firefighters gave the department supporter a graveside send-off and we received the video, a lovely gesture but no substitute for being there. So this weekend, family members will converge on Massachusetts, the first time we will all be together since the start of the pandemic. And more significantly, Sunday will be our first pilgrimage to Jonas’s grave to finally bear witness to our loss.
Richard Harris, a native of Marblehead, is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Maryland. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.