When the epidemic hit New York City people had to move quickly to protect themselves and others and to try and help out somehow. The City was wracked with the sound of sirens and every night at 7:00 p.m. people opened their windows and banged pots and pans in tribute to the many health workers and other first responders who were working past human endurance to try and stem the tide of human misery and death, often to no measurable relief in those first few months of a deadly spring.
But in the streets, there was silence. Shots of an empty Fifth Avenue, a barren Times Square, major thoroughfares and gathering places with only one or two figures, masked and walking quickly, trying to get off the streets and into safety somewhere looked eerie and other worldly.
Amid all the hustle and efforts, the noises and cries, there was a core of grief so deep that silence was the only answer. Grief is bigger than we are, than any of us are both collectively and in ourselves. It feels as vast as the universe. Vastness doesn’t help when we lose someone we love to that great beyond. Death, so grand, so all powerful loses its stature quickly when it robs us of someone we love. It then is petty, mean, cruel, tiny, spiteful, horrible, a thorn in our heel that will not come out, a weight on our chest that makes every breath catch on something hard and sharp, that makes even sunshine, ocean, dogs, friends, words seem inchoate and flat.
Some things are so sad that the only response can be silence. Inside each of us, when sorrow this great comes along, is a hollow that becomes a city of silence. Words are great, but they have a limit both to comfort and to explain.
When someone faces such a huge loss, what words can possibly be said? We struggle to comfort a friend. We say: “I’m sorry for your loss.” Or, and I detest this: “He or she is in a better place.” Really? Where is he, Cabo? Paris? Manhattan? What’s better than being alive on this great empty planet, emptier than ever because of the loss of this person and if there is something better, how would you know?
Words don’t help. Nothing helps. Grief demands silence and it gets it, it hears the empty tunnel in our deepest thoughts and dreams. After my mother passed away a friend asked me if I had seen her in my dreams yet. I hadn’t, that took more time. Once I saw her in my dreams though, the silence of her absence started to fade a little bit, my heart and dreams slowly became repopulated by memories of her, things I could say, anecdotes I could repeat, even funny things she’d said. Now when I repeat something funny or wise that she said I hear it out of both her mouth and my own.
Little by little we leave the empty world of the silent city and carry our losses into ordinary times. We see light and shadow, hear music and laughter. We walk by the ocean. We carry our losses with their great silence, into the remainder of our days.