Death does not kill 1

Coping with COVID fatalities: Death does not kill

Jijil Jimenez

Posted at Nov 18 2021 10:34 PM

In one of my regular runs inside the eponymous Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, years ago, I espied in the first light of dawn a huge banner hanging from a window of its senior student’s dormitory. It read: “Death does not kill. Only life kills.”

I have long since looked at death differently.

Over five million people all over the world have already died from COVID. Not since World War II has anyone living today seen as many deaths in so short a time, and not since the entire history of mankind has been a war or pandemic more global. 

Five million dead is not just a number. They have names and people who love them. Many of them are people we know. It’s time to think about death and I do not have a figure to mind more innocent and more universally maligned.

For most of us, the topic of death, especially of people close to us, is almost taboo. We don’t talk about it, except in spectacular cases - and only because of the spectacle. When we have to, we don’t linger on the subject to avoid reliving hurt, or fear, not the least our own. We are drawn to the subject but, mostly in silent dread. It’s the bummer in all conversations, even in funerals. Like passing by the gates of a cemetery, especially at night, we want to move by it fast. We socially kill death.

Most cultures kill death and the more sophisticated, the more elaborate the premeditated murder. Just look at all the ideas of life after death, karma and rebirth, paradise and forty virgins. No, we do not die. Our loved ones don’t, too. See you again, in heaven. That’s what we say to them, to ourselves.

In contrast, we celebrate life, but not so much in the philosophical or spiritual sense as much as in its more mundane likeness. What comes to mind are life-killing unhealthy habits associated with rituals of celebration, like drinking often to excess and eating rich food. Yet, life is the true killer. One cannot die who has not lived. We were all born to die.

I am currently in a running conversation with a young man who, for five months now, has been tending to his very sick and very old mother, who is openly dying to die. He said the most difficult part are those increasingly recurrent moments when she would teeter between death and surviving. One being tied to life support systems in a hospital and always in pain cannot be said to be truly alive. 

In one such desperate episode, he asked the doctors if her mother was finally going to die. They simply told him that their job is merely to delay death. I have read big pharma ads about adding more years to life, and life to years. But I have never viewed doctors as delayers before. 

Since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic almost two years ago, I used to count the people I know and can name who died, and not always from the virus. I lost count after a hundred. To be exact, I stopped counting, after a hundred.

A few days ago, a friend, who’s always been following my posts in Facebook died from a massive heart attack at three in the morning. He entered the bathroom and suddenly collapsed. In his forties, I never knew he was suffering from any serious health condition, not even a minor one. He just up and died on me. 

After the deaths of so many people I know, I have expected to be numbed to it because it is really numbing. Perhaps, because of my growing sensitivity to the salience of death in the time of COVID, my own included, what I found was common empathy instead. And it’s contagious, too.

I knew of a single mother and breadwinner who was hit by COVID and, having minor children of my own, became worried for her kids, too, if it turns out for worst. I hardly knew her, but the anxiety I felt was almost like falling in love. 

Over 45,000 Filipinos have already died from COVID. Our social media pages now read like obituaries, and sick calls, as well. At now over 2.8 million total cases in the country, there are few families today where COVID has not hit home, like mine, or close to home, like most. Yet we move on as we have always done with death. And, yet again, COVID now also threatens our ability to do just that.

COVID is not so much infectious as it is contagious. The infection itself can be cured in most cases, but mass contagion - the ease and rapidity of transmission of the virus across wide swathes of the population - threatens our public health systems capacity cope. It also closes businesses and puts people out of work. The sudden economic contraction that follows threatens everything we need to survive and recover. This is the real crisis. But it goes even deeper than that in its impact on our personal, psychological well-being. 

The COVID pandemic is unlike the conventional wars of the past where battle lines and spaces could be drawn with a degree of reliability and where one can possibly steer clear of. It is more like the civil wars, but at the individual level and, arguably, less civil because everyone is the potential enemy of everyone else, even family members. 

We are all vulnerable to each other’s risk appetites or tolerance, from individual hygiene habits to idiosyncratic compliance with health protocols, not to mention the various unavoidables of life and livelihood, like taking public transport to work or going to public markets. For many, the fear of transmission borders on paranoia. The slightest cough in a covered place and anxiety levels hit the roof. We hardly invite guests at home anymore. Everyone is suspect.

Throughout history, our ability to survive crisis, individual or common, has always rested on our nature as social being. We never cope and survive alone. It demands physical closeness, so much hugging, holding of hands and touching, most especially in the case of deaths of people close to us. We send flowers, cards, messages or make calls to their families and apologize when we cannot be physically present and yet still feel guilty about it, often for the rest of our lives.

Today, we cannot even come physically close to comfort loves ones struck by the virus. Worst, we cannot mourn together with friends to cope with our grief when they die. COVID has struck deeply at the very heart of our social coping mechanisms. The resulting disorient is wreaking havoc on our emotional well-being that is only being partially assuaged by digital media, such as online memorial services. Despite it, we have never felt so alone in coping with the terrifying finality of death.

Isolated from each other, we need to develop new frameworks in order to cope with massive deaths. The fear of death that has long been with us intersects in our time with the massive anxiety of COVID infections. One doesn’t have to be a clinical psychologist to imagine the intense anxiety it brings and the impact on our mental health. 

Religion, other systems of beliefs, including myths, will always have their place in our coping mechanisms with their ideas of rest from pain, eternal life and drinking mead with Odin and the gods in Valhalla for all eternity. But we need to make adjustments in the face of COVID deaths that would require educating ourselves about death itself. I don’t really know how that curriculum would take form. I only know that we should be able to start to talk about it more freely. If only life kills, then we can do something about it, for as long as we are alive. 

Death does not kill because it cannot kill. It’s really all about life.

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(Atty. Angelo 'Jijil' Jimenez, is an expert on Philippine overseas labor issues and global migration. He served with distinction in the Department of Labor and Employment and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. He received 2 presidential citations for his efforts in safeguarding overseas Filipino workers or OFWs in Middle East flashpoints, including Kuwait and Iraq. He has also served as labor attaché in Japan. He served as a UP Regent from November 2017 to July 2021.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.