Psalm 89:2: I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
A couple of weeks ago, I was standing the cold eating a homemade cinnamon bun and talking about the flu with church people. We’re trying to gather outdoors in masks once each month to convince ourselves that even though we mostly encounter one another on computer screens, these days, we do still exist in the flesh.
We were searching our memories for stories passed down about the 1918 flu pandemic. One third of the world’s population contracted the 1918 H1N1 virus, and it killed nearly 700,000 Americans. With those kinds of numbers, we knew that our families couldn’t have been exempt from the universal grief and pain. But we also couldn’t recall any stories from that era. None of us gathered could recall our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents ever talking about it.
“Maybe the war just overshadowed it,” someone suggested. “Maybe people were just more experienced with death,” I said. “Oh, every family in town has lost someone this winter? Guess it’s the flu that’s killing people this year instead of tuberculosis.”
I read an article about how after that pandemic a century ago, people intentionally avoided the subject. It is actually known, today, as “the forgotten pandemic”:
“Never since the Black Death has such a plague swept over the face of the world … [and] never, perhaps, has a plague been more stoically accepted,” commented The Times in December 1918, at the height of the deadly second wave of the pandemic.https://theconversation.com/why-historians-ignored-the-spanish-flu-101950
There are plenty of theories among historians about why there are so few records of trauma, no memorials to the dead, no pandemic wisdom passed down through generations. There was a war, after all, and the pandemic dashed real hopes of scientific progress. And also, man, who wants to hash out the worst period of their life over and over again?
We have some resources, now, to know more intimately what happened in those days a century ago that are so frighteningly like these days, now.
One of those resources are the living, breathing elders. The oldest couple in my congregation joins us every Tuesday evening for online fellowship time, and it is the most reliably jolly hour of my week. We swap recipes, tell inappropriate jokes, and listen to stories. I asked them, the week after that cinnamon bun conversation, whether they had any memory of family stories from the last pandemic.
And, oh, do they. It turns out that our beloved, wickedly funny Ruby has graced this world for almost 90 years in part *because* of the 1918 pandemic. Her father’s first wife caught the flu and died, leaving him alone with four children – one an infant just a few months old. The community sent in a young woman to cook and clean and help him get through and, wouldn’t you know it: they fell in love. They married and had several more children, Ruby included.
I don’t think her parents talked much about the details of the flu and its horrors, but she still managed to convey, in her telling, a bit of the darkness of that time. The weight of grief was part of her growing up, I think. It must have been.
And yet, here she is, this vibrant jokester who loves a good midwestern snowstorm, Christian mystery novels and the movie Home Alone, probably solely responsible for most of my genuine belly laughs this year. Out of so much grief and pain came Ruby, a straight-up GEM.
We don’t really take much time to listen to peoples’ stories these days, and I really wish we would. There is wisdom and revelation, there. We are not the first humans to trudge through this kind of unimaginable grief and pain and loss, we’re just achingly unprepared for it. People have endured so much – so much more, even, than this – and their stories are a gift to receive.
One of the theories about why we don’t know much from the 1918 pandemic is that entire populations were traumatized, and talking about the horror simply hurt too much. Maybe that’s a lesson for us, today: if we all agree to be honest, to name our loss and grief and pain, to insist that our leaders acknowledge it, too, to refuse to participate in cruel pleasantries and double down on answering questions like “how are you?” truthfully…maybe we can offer a gift of wisdom for generations to come. This hurts. It is unimaginably wrong and painful and we are not sure how we’ll survive it. In fact, we know that every 30 seconds, some beloved neighbor fails to survive.
It is important to face the truth. It’s important to understand that this is changing the face of human experience. If we are honest about it, then we might stand a chance of changing things for the better. What’s that line from James Baldwin?
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
God was present with every sick and dying person in 1918, with every grief-stricken spouse and child, with every family and community struggling to fill the gaps and keep one another alive. And that same God, whose faithfulness extends from generation to generation, whose steadfast love is established FOREVER, is with us now, too, in every ICU room, with every nurse and teacher and delivery driver and funeral home attendant, with every grieving partner and child kept apart from their dying loved one. We are not alone, and this is not the first time God has endured such grief alongside us.