Grieving for Strangers

I’ll admit to enjoying a lot about being quarantined: sleeping in, pajamas all day, unstructured hours, long, lazy conversations with my family on the front porch or at the fire pit. But, in the background, I can still sense the constant bell tolling for fellow Americans fighting to breathe, suffering and dying from COVID-19. At this writing, more than 80,000 US Americans have died in just a few weeks. I feel overwhelmed by so much daily death. I am emotionally fragile and tend to cry easily at nothing. Clearly, I haven’t been able to process the grief well and it suffocates whatever pleasures the quarantine has provided.  I don’t know of any social etiquette to carry us through the destruction of lives and families caused by this pandemic. How do you grieve for tens of thousands of strangers?

Art helps. In 2018, I saw an art installation at the National Gallery of Art called “Untitled (Ross in L.A.)” by an artist named Felix Gonzales-Torres. It was just a neat 3-foot stack of large papers, each of which had a silver rectangle in the center. Visitors were invited to take a sheet of the paper home. This is art? At first I rolled my eyes at what I almost dismissed as another wacky modern art failure, but then I read the story associated with the art piece. 

Felix Gonzales-Torres had created “Untitled” in memory of his partner, Ross, who had died from AIDS. The stack of paper represented his body and the silver rectangle his soul. As visitors each, one-by-one, took a paper home, for their own use or artwork, the paper stack diminished just as Ross’s body withered in illness. Just as Ross had died, the stack, too, finally disappeared. What remained was his memory scattered in the homes of hundreds of people who took the sheets of paper. Mr. Gonazales-Torres wanted us to take the paper and create our own art in memory of Ross so that his life would continue in our own lives. 

I took a piece of paper and made a picture of a dragonfly swarm. I went back to the gallery and got five more pieces of the paper and made five more pictures. I gave them away to each of my sisters and some friends, telling each of them about Ross. Now a memory of Ross’s life hangs in my dining room, in my sister’s law office, in my brother in law’s family room. Ross is everywhere and I think of him when I see these pictures in so many familiar places. He is part of my family now, too.

Felix Gonzales-Torres himself died of AIDS in 1996. I feel as though he reached out to me across the years from another pandemic to help me get through this current one. I thank him for his art work. I appreciate how he taught me to grieve for a person I never knew. I am grateful to him for allowing Ross to no longer be a stranger. 

“Untitled” (Ross in L.A.), Felix Gonzales-Torres, National Gallery of Art

— Margaret Wohler, May 2020

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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