Two Years and Counting of Magical Thinking

Back in February I wrote about the US passing the 500,000 mark in people who died from Covid. Today we crossed the 800,000 mark, and there is no end in sight to the unnecessary death.

I tweeted this a few days ago:  “Everyone wants to report back who died, but far fewer people want to talk about grief.” I was actually talking about the Sex and the City reboot “And Just Like That”, but it fits the real world, too. Even if you have not lost a loved one to Covid, the grief is palpable everywhere.

In this moment as a country we don’t do grief well. Part of the Trump plan to ignore Covid was to convince a significant percentage of the nation to be indifferent to mass death. So at first we were told that it was just old people who were dying and they’d already lived long lives and so were expendable. I read this over and over from right wingers on the politics board I frequent. It’s disgusting.

As the virus started mainly killing groups other than the elderly, the narrative shifted. See, the people who were dying were overweight, or unhealthy in ways that are socially undesirable, so the shitty morality play that passes for conservatism in the US deemed them expendable too, and therefore not deserving of mourning.

The same went for people fighting cancer, or who have compromised immune systems. If they were in such danger from the disease then they should just stay home. And if they died, it wasn’t a big deal because it was their own fault for leaving their homes.

As young people and children got sick, and died, the same people told us that there were very few children who were getting sick and most of them weren’t dying, so what was the big deal? I don’t have children but a lot of the people who were telling me that kids sick from Covid wasn’t a big deal did. I’m kind of a dummy at times, because I really believed that sick kids would finally move the needle. But it didn’t and to be honest, I don’t think a lot of these people would care if their own child were seriously ill with Covid.

So over the last 2 years “you’re old”, “you’re sick in a socially unacceptable way”, “you’re selfish for wanting me to have to sacrifice to keep you healthy”, and “it’s only a few kids” have become a magical thinking mantra to the Covid and vaccine deniers.

I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking when it came out in 2005. I don’t know why. I am not a particular fan of hers. I wasn’t married. I hadn’t faced the death of a romantic partner. But somehow I was drawn to it anyway.

There are some books you can’t reread because they strike such a deep chord in you that can’t uncross that river. TYOMT is one of mine. (The book that hit me the hardest is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go as every page of that book is tinged with profound grief, yet I could not stop reading it.)

Didion’s grief is refined and almost abstract, but it’s also very clearly devastating. I still admire her for being so clear about something we all shy away from:

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”

Mostly I was drawn to TYOMT because of its reference to magical thinking. The American Psychological Association defines magical thinking as “The belief that events or the behavior of others can be influenced by one’s thoughts, wishes, or rituals. Magical thinking is typical of children up to 4 or 5 years of age, after which reality thinking begins to predominate.”

The Covid and vaccine deniers have been wallowing in magical thinking:  “It’ll only happen to old people/overweight people/selfish people who want me to wear a mask/a few kids”. Every day you read a story about an anti-vaxxer who is dying a slow, painful death from Covid surrounded by a family who is shell-shocked to learn that they have been lied to by people they trusted.

If you are mired in magical thinking, you cannot address your grief. And if you don’t address your grief, you won’t see how other people are grieving, and you won’t be motivated to fix the underlying problem.

We are all working through the unimaginable.