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How A National Tribute Helps Americans Grieve Lives Lost To COVID-19

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Tonight, 400 lights are illuminating the waters of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. The lighting ceremony is being hosted by President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris, and it's meant to honor the 400,000 U.S. lives lost to COVID-19. Historian Micki McElya has written about the role of collective mourning in this moment of national tragedy and joins me now.

Welcome.

MICKI MCELYA: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Just to focus on what is unfolding here in Washington tonight, the reflecting pool is obviously not just any pool, not just any setting. Would you describe for us the majesty of this setting and what you see as you look across that pool?

MCELYA: No, this is an iconic vista of heroes and honor and of memorialization. It's impossible to consider that terrain without also thinking of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. And I think it's fitting not only given the week but also fitting because it marks the collective human activist collaborative response to moments of crisis and national endeavor.

KELLY: Yeah, stay with the collective moment that this represents. I remember reading back in May, when we had lost what was then an unimaginable 90,000 lives to COVID-19.

MCELYA: Right.

KELLY: You wrote an op-ed about that we need to mourn together, which the pandemic has made impossible to do it in person. You wrote about how sharing grief brings people together, and I wonder if you would elaborate on that.

MCELYA: Sharing grief brings people together, especially in the United States, like nothing else. This is a vast country of an enormous and varied population. Most Americans will never know one another personally, see one another. Yet it's in moments of national mourning, it's in moments of collective grief and collective honor that we come together.

KELLY: I wonder whether it is harder to mourn while we're still in the middle of something. The pandemic and these 400,000 lives lost, it's - I mean, it's just tragic to say it, but we're obviously not near the end. This is not like a mass shooting or a terror attack or an earthquake, where it's awful but then it's over, and you can take stock.

MCELYA: I believe that it's more important now than ever and it has been more important to honor those who have died but also to enact collective mourning in part to maintain vigilance, in part to remind us how important it remains and is to wear masks, to follow public health recommendations. There's no way that we can build from this and repair so much of the damage without a clear-eyed, honest, sober confrontation of what's happened. This is the reckoning that we need.

KELLY: Well, and it's worth noting that we mark this moment of 400,000 lives lost in the U.S. at a moment when our capital city is locked down, is militarized in the service of protecting Americans from other Americans. How does that complicate collective mourning? How does such a divided America even begin to do anything - mourn or anything else collectively?

MCELYA: It is both an enormous barrier and makes the stakes that much higher that we share these losses. I'm a little struck silent (laughter) - that we...

KELLY: It's hard to find words to capture everything going on.

MCELYA: I know. It...

KELLY: I know.

MCELYA: You know, one of the things that has really struck me is that for the inauguration tomorrow, there have been thousands of American flags placed along the mall to represent the people who would have been there, the people who can't be there because they can't safely gather. Just a few months ago, there were thousands of flags there marking the dead. And the toll at that point was 220,000. We already have lost so many more people. It is confronting that. And I do believe that these are moments that can help heal not in a naive way but in a profound and true way.

KELLY: Micki McElya - she's a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and author of "The Politics Of Mourning: Death And Honor In Arlington National Cemetery."

Professor McElya, thank you.

MCELYA: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARKUS GUENTNER'S "IN MOLL 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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