Have you thought to yourself, “More people die from cancer or heart attacks every year, so why are Covid deaths so noteworthy?” I’ll tell you why.
You never get used to it, seeing someone die. Nor should you.
People who make caring for the sick their life’s work know one day they will lose someone. Whether it’s a car crash that has irreparably hurt someone or a person who is far too young, whose body has stopped responding to chemotherapy, we cannot save everyone — no matter how hard we try.
Comparing COVID-19 deaths to those from other causes reveals that they have missed what distinguishes the two. When people die of heart attacks, cancer, car accidents, it is despite us doing our damnedest as a society to prevent their deaths.
We cannot save everyone; that much is true. Still, you won’t find an honorable caregiver espousing, “Sometimes people die,” as they work. People who try, but fail, to save a life still feel sadness. Even the surgeon who loses a 103-year-old patient on the operating table regrets not giving the person a little more time.
It is the loss of time, not young age nor race nor deaths from unrelated causes, that makes the tragedy.
Seeing death leaves you hollow and weighted down in a place where inescapable mortality taunts your efforts to hold on to someone — just a little while longer.
You work as hard as humanly possible to save people because no one’s loved one deserves less, and even when it seems unlikely. You owe it to your patient, their family, and yourself to know you did everything possible. Leaving no “what-ifs” is what allows us to persevere.
Death should never feel like an OK outcome, even though you can’t avoid it. People who have lost family to COVID-19 feel no less pain because other people have died for other reasons.
At age twelve, I stood at the foot of my mother’s grave and felt a pain that tore my life apart. The rest of the world made no difference. My world had ended.
Trivializing or rationalizing these deaths further injures those who are already suffering, and the comparison shows a failure to comprehend why these deaths are so heartbreaking.
Lives lost to COVID-19 differ from Americans dying in other ways because most other deaths happened despite precautions, despite legislation, preventative measures, treatment, and people working to save that life.
When someone dies of heart disease, it will be despite exercise campaigns, yearly doctor’s visits that look for high blood pressure, medication, maybe surgeries.
I have seen how an error affects doctors — no matter how unintended or inevitable it may have been — sometimes haunting them for the rest of their careers, even though we know to err is human. It affects them because they care deeply and they appreciate the responsibility that rested in their hands.
Still, we cannot prevent every death, despite all efforts. The loss still stings, but imagine the feelings that death would bring if it happened because the doctor did nothing.
Imagine if a person lost their life because a doctor saw high blood pressure and failed to act. Would you defend the doctor who neglected the patient, saying others have died for other reasons? The outcome could be the same, but what came before the death matters.
Trust me when I say that it matters to those who are facing a life robbed of the people who should still be here now. People dying of other causes do nothing to bring 100,000 lives back, and they do nothing for those grieving:
- children who will never see their father again;
- a daughter who heard on the phone that her mother died and her father may not make it either; and
- the husband and father who buried his wife and now raises their child alone.
How should they feel to find that those charged with protecting us failed to act and warnings went ignored? People grieving carry the weight of that, and instead of hearing them, supporting them, and fighting to ensure this never happens again, we trivialize their loss.
“People die,” you say.
It’s not possible to know if we could have saved a life, but saying they might have died anyway again misses the point.
The loss is exceptionally heartbreaking because we know proven-effective, early action could have saved some lives, but those charged with protecting our lives never even tried — seeming in some ways to gamble our lives—not until serious harm had already befallen the body that is America.
Death will always sting, but it stings so much more when it’s possible those we lost might be here now.
Photo by Kat J on Unsplash