Facing the COVID death count

Posted 3/2/21

It is almost spring. The signs are all around us. Nature is greening again. The chorus of birds has returned to the trees. The days grow longer, and just yesterday I saw my first daffodil offer its …

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Facing the COVID death count

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It is almost spring. The signs are all around us. Nature is greening again. The chorus of birds has returned to the trees. The days grow longer, and just yesterday I saw my first daffodil offer its yellow smile.

For Christians, this is the liturgical season of Lent, a word derived from Old English that originally referred to spring. The paradox is, despite the signs of new life in nature that are all around us, Christians have traditionally used Lent as a time to focus on death.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday when worshippers receive the mark of the cross in ash on their foreheads. This is to remind us not only of the universal truth of mortality but also that it is personal. Everyone is mortal. I will die. Remembering my mortality can make me thankful for life today.

Even if they have never heard of ashes, people of different faiths may still be familiar with the popular Christian practice of “giving something up” during Lent. Maybe chocolate, wine or reality TV shows. This Lent, my 8-year-old son wanted our family to give up eating meat. The point again relates to raising awareness. Giving something up can result in gratitude for what we have.

In addition to going vegetarian, I have added something I consider to be a spiritual practice. Every day I learn the story of a fellow North Carolinian who has died of COVID-19.

Over the past few days, I’ve read of Tar Heel state natives who traveled the globe and others who were born and died in the same county. I’ve read about decorated war heroes and accomplished professionals. Politicians, factory workers, preachers and teachers. Mountain mamas and country gentlemen. Folks who had lived through the Great Depression, Jim Crow and 9/11. An immigrant who became a sheriff’s deputy. A survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma who became a nurse.

Loved ones remembered their deceased with stories: He had witnessed the explosion of the first atomic bomb. She loved Cajun cooking, especially jambalaya. Another remembered her as “a fighter” and him as a “bright presence.” A son said his dad had never met a stranger, and even his bank teller cried at the news of his death.

These are just a few of the more than 11,000 dead from COVID-19 in North Carolina who are part of 500,000 people in this country alone linked by cause of death. I cannot imagine 500,000 of anything, let alone the magnitude of such suffering and loss.

But these stories give life to the statistics. Stories inspire the living.

Despite the vastly different life experiences of their loved ones, I’ve noticed a common theme: Many relatives and friends wish to carry on the legacy of the person who died. Time and time again, people shared that they wanted to be as good a provider or as good a parent. To be as kind and loyal, generous and loving.

Receiving the cross on my forehead this Ash Wednesday was particularly poignant. This Lent has been marked by death as never before in my lifetime. Though I have not lost a loved one to the coronavirus, my daily Lenten practice has put faces on the death count. Not everyone believes the Christian claim that life springs from death. But I think we can agree that the memory of the dead can inspire the living.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church and author of Gently Between the Words: Essays and Poems. He is currently working from home with his wife and three children.


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