Review: Who We Lost Meets the Loss and Sorrow of COVID with Grace and Fury

Who We Lost: A Portable COVID Memorial, edited by Martha Greenwald and published by Belt Publishing, started out on Greenwald’s website WhoWeLost.org, an online, crowd-sourced memorial to those who perished during COVID. It is one of the few places—indeed, perhaps the only one of its kind—to interact openly (and without subterfuge) with the tremendous scale of loss we suffered during the pandemic. And it does so by addressing loss at its smallest levels: the scent of cooking that no longer fills a kitchen; the loss of a voice or a touch; and more. The smallest things that remind us of those we have loved and lost, can also be the biggest.

I come from an oversized Irish Catholic family: my father is one of seven children, and has 50 (or more) first cousins. My generation is considerably smaller, but still numerous. We, like so many of our fellows, carried traditions with us as we came to the US, deep in steerage. One of those traditions is the wake, a time to celebrate and to mourn, and also a time to gather together. (At least in families like mine, Irish and German and from Wisconsin, wakes also involve so much liquor that our alcohol shopping trips could dry out the town.) I have learned the ways of grief as a communal thing, a space in which we come together to share and mourn and drink and, yes, celebrate. A wake can be one hell of a good party.

But it requires a coming-together. COVID stole that coming-together from us, at a time when we needed it most. I remember thinking, as I scanned news reports for names I knew in the death rolls, that their loved ones must be lost. How can one grieve, without the gathering of kinfolk? Where is the joy at a life lived well, if there is no gathering? Who We Lost tackles that anguish, in a way that startled me and brought me to tears. So few people, and so few places, have acknowledged the loss of communal grieving among all the other losses COVID has brought. In “Due to Complications,” Stephanie Wolf writes of the questions that linger along with the grief: “We didn’t hold shiva, at least not formally. … It all felt rather unceremonious and strange, but I’ll also never know whether having a more formal mourning process closer to his death would have helped me grieve.” That wondering, that sense of emptiness—it becomes its own question, its own strange, impossible grief. I still wake up, sometimes, and wonder how anyone could mourn and find closure without their buckets of booze and 200 of their closest family members on every available surface?

How do we memorialize the dead of a pandemic politicized and turned to hate? Who We Lost manages, in its specificity, to immortalize not only the people whose lives and losses are represented here but also so many others whose names have gone unlisted. As I read these memorials, I thought of the neighbor, one of the first to die in the suburb where I currently live. He was a man whose zeal for life made him a magnet for every child around, and whose compassion guaranteed he'd be remembered with love by people who found in him a first friend in the US. I think, as I read of love and service and healthcare workers, of the time I watched that neighbor work his magic on a pair of wailing kids, until they were laughing and showing him their treasures. The sort of interaction that leaves not only both parties but everyone else in the vicinity happier than they were before.

COVID took more from us than our communal rituals. In far too many cases, it took entire communities as well. In “What I Call Home,” Carol Curley Begay Schumacher writes of one such loss, its magnitude almost impossible to understand: “The pandemic has taken forty-two members of my family, but it has also taken the place I call home.” She writes of the ways in which a genocidal virus—and equally genocidal health care policies—have destroyed the reservation where she grew up. Where, even now, some have “no transportation or running water.” What they do have, however, is tourists—unmasked and self-righteous: “they argue about the need to wear them. They don’t see that we are just trying to save the rest of us.” I wonder, reading her words, if perhaps those tourists do know—and don’t care.

Who We Lost includes a section of healthcare workers’ testimonies. It is moving, and profound, and, I fear, far too easily set aside in a country where healthcare is a privilege, not a right. Jamar Wattley’s “This Is All New To Us” is moving and deeply angry, a mess of emotions that resonate deep within my bones. He writes of the ways in which technology can anchor us, bringing us together when we are apart, describing hospital bed video calls as “often beautiful,” and noting that “As a critical care nurse, it was helpful to my morale to see the faces behind the voices, to affirm” the love and care behind each patient. But he also writes of the profound isolation of caring for the dying, of fighting a battle that has lessened but not departed: “Things are better, but COVID isn’t gone. I’m still doing the work. I’m still here.” Northern Illinois nephrologist Dr. Krishna Sankaran writes about choosing to be the person to work hospital shifts because, unlike his coworkers, his kids are grown and “I am at a different place in my life.” Dr. Sankaran writes of the bravery of going, day after day, into wards filled with death, and I wonder at how fast some of us seem to have forgotten that sacrifice.

In addition to its oral histories, Who We Lost includes a section dedicated to, in the words of the chapter’s subtitle, “Writing about loss.” This includes ideas for memorializing those lost, as well as a number of prompts. The prompts range from recipes to dreams and beyond. Each prompt includes suggestions for tackling both the prompt and the art of writing about loss. This section provides a backbone to anyone wishing to memorialize a loved one through the written word. Greenwald’s suggestions in “Getting Started: Writing About Loss,” and the prompts that follow, can likewise aid anyone creating a written memorial. They're also an asset to those of us who struggle to come to terms with the past several years, and the tremendous fear and loss of trust in others it generated.

Books like Who We Lost can't bring back the dead or the strength we had before Long COVID. But they can bridge worlds, if given a chance, and let us see and share the sorrow and change wrought by the virus. Most of all, in a country that strives to forget its dead, both WhoWeLost.org and Greenwald and Belt’s Who We Lost the anthology allow us to remember, bear with us our dead, and carry both the grief of their passings and the wonder of their lives.

Who We Lost: A Portable COVID Memorial is available from the publisher, as well as anywhere books are sold.

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Caitlin Archer-Helke