COVID-19 (& MBC): Are We Becoming Numb? #pandemic #breastcancer #cancer #womenshealth #grief #loss #death

COVID-19 (& MBC): Are we becoming numb to the deaths, the numbers & the grief?

This pandemic is forcing us as a society to talk about death, to see death, to feel death. Death is in our faces like never before. Sadly, many have experienced a COVID-19 death on a deeply personal level. So many have had loved ones die.

What about the rest of us?

Sure, we hear about and see images of death happening around us, but do we really see it? Do we really get it?

Despite constantly hearing in the media and elsewhere things like, we’re all in this together, the majority of us remain relatively safe. The majority of us are yet untouched by death from this virus.

So, are we really all in this together?

In some ways, yes. In others, definitely not.

Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy and director of the Hong/Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College, writes the following in his excellent commentary in the Common Weal titled, Take It Personally:

For most of us safely quarantining at home with the help of Zoom and Netflix, the pandemic’s body count may seem as abstract as the casualties of a war fought on foreign soil. Bombarded with bad news, we shake our heads and look for some distraction to calm or amuse us. Maybe a YouTube concert, maybe Tiger King. We do our best to keep up with the latest advice from medical experts, or the moving accounts of health-care workers on the front lines, but after a while we—or at least I—become inured to the shots of bodies stacked in freezers.

For those of us who have not experienced the death of a loved one or someone we know from COVID-19, we must not become numb to the deaths, the numbers or the grief.

So yes, we must take it personally, or at least try to.

We’ve all seen the boxes on the right side or bottom of our TV screens, the boxes that keep track of the number of COVID-19 deaths. Marino aptly calls them death tickers. There’s the global tally. And the US tally. The numbers keep ticking up.

I remember when the first death was reported back in late February. Dear Hubby and I were on vacation. The death was noteworthy, but no one was panicking. We had no idea about the avalanche ahead. No one did.

As I hit the publish button, today is the day the number of US deaths to Covid-19 reached 100,000. This milestone is sobering and humbling, but mostly, it’s heartbreaking.

What an astonishing climb in just a few months. It’s hard to get your head around it. It’s hard, maybe even impossible, to comprehend the magnitude of what those numbers represent. The grief. So much grief.

And yet, we must try. We cannot become numb to the numbers, the deaths, the grief.

Every number is a name, a person. Every name has a family. Every death represents an empty seat, a hug not given, smiles not seen, a voice not heard, a life cut short. Every death matters. Every. Single. One.

These staggering numbers cannot become normalized and certainly should never be twisted or touted as any kind of success.

We must not stop being shocked. We must not shield ourselves from unthinkable heartache others are enduring. We must not become numb.

Sometimes, I fear we are doing exactly that, growing numb. I fear we are adapting a bit too easily to seeing and hearing those numbers.

After all, we are good at adapting. Being adaptable is a good thing in many scenarios, but in this one, it is not.

This reminds me of metastatic breast cancer death numbers; yes, perhaps there is yet another parallel to be made here.

This year, 41,000 women and men will likely die from metastatic breast cancer. This is another number we hear. Year after year. Actually, decade after decade at this point. We’ve heard it so many times.

Have we become numb to these numbers too?

I think we have.

Perhaps there is indeed a parallel here if one is willing to see it.

When will this pandemic end?

So much about this virus remains unknown. So much about our future is uncertain.

No matter when that end comes, we must never become numb to the numbers, the deaths. We must not become numb to grief.

If we are not personally impacted by the death of a loved one from COVID-19 (or from metastatic breast cancer), our job is to witness. To remember. To feel.

Our job is also to act.

As Marino reminds us, feelings are not enough; feelings should result in a call to do something to make things better:

The proper response to the pandemic is not mainly a matter of feelings but of political action aimed at protecting the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters, those who have no choice but to risk their lives working at the dollar store or the local meat-packing plant. Do that and maybe then we’ll have a right to say, “We’re all in this together.”

Whether we are speaking about metastatic breast cancer or COVID-19 (or a host of other issues as well), first we need to feel, and then we need to act.

In order to do either…

We must never become numb.

I don’t often directly ask readers to share posts, but I’m asking you to share this one. Thank you.


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Do you think people are becoming numb to the staggering number of deaths from COVID-19?

Do you think people have become numb to mbc death numbers as well?

If so, what can we do about it?

COVID-19 (& MBC): Are We Becoming Numb? #pandemic #breastcancer #cancer #womenshealth #grief #loss #death

17 thoughts to “COVID-19 (& MBC): Are we becoming numb to the deaths, the numbers & the grief?”

  1. Nancy, this is an important post. You described exactly how many of us feel. I have been thinking about the similarities between what’s happening in the world now and people with illness (like us). Do I believe we’ve become numb? Absolutely! It’s just easier for people to take this route, but like you emphasized, it is NOT the safe choice. The only way to see change is to act. I am even guilty of going numb at certain situations. The only reason I can give is that I am so very tired, both mentally and physically. But at some point we must come back to reality and realize only our actions can inspire change. I am working on it.

    It is heartbreaking the number of deaths we’ve had due to this virus. It’s scary. We are familiar with this fear. Will we see a positive shift with our culture after this? I hope so.

    I miss you. I hope you and your loved ones stay well and safe.


    1. Rebecca, Pretty sure we all tune out or just don’t focus until something strikes close to home. I get that. But going numb feels different, it’s like normalizing and accepting. Neither of which is acceptable regarding COVID deaths, MBC deaths and other issues, too, of course. I don’t think you are numb at all. Your comment alone proves that. Thanks for sharing. Miss you too. We are well here. Hope you and yours are too. Stay safe and well, friend. x

  2. Yes, I do think we get numb to a lot of very serious issues. I grew up watching the Vietnam War at the dinner table – how callous was that? But we didn’t know anyone in that war, so it meant nothing to slurp spaghetti and watch battles on TV. I don’t know anyone who has Covid (right now), but my sister Roseanne is an ED director and she warns all of us about how awful it is. I do know plenty of people who’ve died of cancer and each time it is a sock to the gut. As usual, great piece and I shared it!

    1. Linda, I remember watching that news coverage too. Not sure we ate dinner through it though. Don’t recall that. As I mentioned somewhere, if something doesn’t directly impact you or someone you care about, it’s easy to tune out. We all do that. But the death toll is simply staggering and we cannot become numb or make the numbers seem like they’re not that bad. Normalizing and accepting is just not okay. That goes for Covid and MBC and others things too. Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing too!

  3. Dear Nancy,
    Thank you as always for speaking out and talking about the hard stuff.
    It does seem like many are becoming numb. It does seem like many will just move on
    so they can forget and put this all behind them. Especially those who were not touched
    personally by a loss of a loved one, close friend or even an acquaintance.
    Which is a very similar mindset to those that have not been touched by cancer.
    And unfortunately, we have leaders who want us to be numb and forget easily. They have, so why can’t we?
    I have been appalled by the lack of empathy, lack of the truth, lack of clear and concise
    leadership that we need in this time of horror. Why is this behaviour acceptable?
    It is unacceptable to me and everyone I talk to. Why do so many people bitch about their personal freedom,
    and invoke the constitution (or the economy) when they think it is okay to put me or any vulnerable person
    in harms way. They are not worried about my freedom or well being, only theirs.
    Is it because I have a little bit of common sense that I knew right away that this “flu” was like no other?
    For heavens sake, they told us it was a new and unknown pneumonia never before seen back in January?
    The rate of infection was clearly rampant, especially in closed spaces. Those poor people on the cruise
    ships, remember them? The first nursing home outbreak? A whole country and then another and another.
    Why is common sense so uncommon now? Why don’t people realize that even regular pnuemonia can be deadly?
    Why are the scientist being muzzled and mocked? Why is this a political thing?
    Why are we wasting time trying to blame someone when we could just try to fix it, you know, together.
    Because I thought we were all in this together.
    I feel so bad for all the health care workers who died or who had to witness the nonstop horror,
    had to worry about getting it themselves and bringing it home to their families, had to live
    apart from their families. I feel so bad for all those who died alone and never saw their families
    again. Or had no family. It is so heart wrenchingly sad, so overwhelming, so unbelievable.
    My heart has been broken since my younger brother died of stage 4 bladder cancer.
    None of us was there the minute he died, we had all left 4 hours before, believing he would
    still be there the next day. I was going to visit him the next day and read to him from his
    favorite science magazine and tell him some stupid jokes.
    I wanted to visit him alone, but never got the chance. I never should have left him.
    The guilt still stings today. It’s been a year and a half, the grief is still raw.
    I can imagine how all those people feel now who wish they had seen their loved one,
    just one more time, to hold their hand and
    just to say hello, tell them a stupid joke
    and just hope it wasn’t goodbye.
    I will never forget them all………………………

    1. Tarzangela, Your comment is so well stated. It’s sad the pandemic has become politicized. I’m sorry your heart is so broken, but I understand. None of us were with my dad when he died either, and that’s something that does bother me still nearly four years later. I don’t think either of us should feel guilty, and I don’t really, it’s more regret, for me anyway. I’m sure your brother knew how much you cared. Someone told me once that perhaps my dad preferred to die alone. To spare us. Not sure about that. But…You are a very caring, empathetic person. We need more like you. Thank you for reading, sharing and caring. Stay well.

  4. I’m Australian. Like America we had the luxury of hindsight. We saw what happened in Italy and England and knew we had to act fast and we did. As a result we have only had 100 deaths and most others have recovered. We are only getting a few new cases each day now and because of extensive testing (no-one is refused a test) we can trace it back to it’s origin. New Zealand did the same and the virus is near non-existant there. During lockdown many people lost their jobs but more people were able to stay connected to their employer through Govt stimulus packages. We have opened up our economy now and so far so good. We still test extensively and are able to do successful tracing. If we get a second wave I guarantee you the economy will be shut down again and we will all be self-isolating. We don’t seem to have a problem with that. I don’t want to get politicial but I can’t comprehend 100,000 deaths in a country as great as American given the warnings. We have all watched your leader firstly deny it, call it a hoax, say it’s fake news, just influenza, sprouting false cures and treatments and constantly downplaying the threat. I probably shouldn’t be in this converstation because I am probably just going to get you all upset. I am not casting asperstions at Americans. I love Americans and this is why I am so upsets to see 100,000 deaths and counting! Covid19 could be around for decades. There is no guarantee. Sorry, feel free to delete me from this chat.

    1. Susan, I think your comment is perfect. I wouldn’t think of deleting it. I’m glad Australia’s situation has not become as dire though, of course, any deaths are tragic. Hoping things continue to go as well as possible there. Hoping things improve here and around the globe as well, of course. Thank you so much for chiming in. Stay well.

  5. Thank you Nancy, as always, you are the voice of reason! After reading your answer (and thank you for always taking the time to answer personally) I realized you are right, it is more regret than guilt when it comes to things like this. And I am not so sure your Dad wanted to die alone to spare you either. I am more inclined to believe that when we die, we want to say goodbye and say what we really feel, if we can. Regrets go both ways.
    And you and I both know that when someone says that, they are just trying to make you feel better. Even when it doesn’t. clunk……..
    And Susan, Thank you, thank you, for seeing and saying so many truths. I truly admire that your country and people saw the danger immediately and acted upon it. And that everyone knew it was the right thing to do without argument and discourse. While I am proud to be American, I am embarrassed by the juvenile behavior of leaders who insist they have my best interest at heart, yet refuse to see the danger of their behavior.
    Stay safe everyone!

    1. Tarzangela, I am fortunate that I did get to spend a lot of time with my dad during his final weeks, so I don’t have a lot of regrets and things were not left unsaid. Still, it saddens me to think he was alone when he died. It always will. So I understand how you feel about not being there when your brother died – at the minute as you said. I know you were close, so I hope that comforts you above all else. Grief is just hard. Thanks for adding an additional comment. Stay safe.

  6. Thank you Nancy; another thought provoking issue. For whatever reason I am not numb to the Covid #s; I am watching too much news; scared that if we open up too fast we will be in bigger trouble; yesterday and last night were especially tough for additional reasons. As I watched the rioters, with their masks on I thought had I ever felt this desperate for our country. It did take me back to Vietnam; husband, at the time, was in Nam; I came home from work each day and turned on tv to see the body counts and watch the war. Now I come up to the realization that I am numb to the MBC #s; your figure woke me up again; maybe I am numb because very, very fortunate for me I am on a drug now for 2 yrs that is working. Disappointed that I have become accepting of the MBC #s. I was not accepting in the past.
    Take care; thanks again for all you do.

    1. Chris, I appreciate your candor. I’m glad you’ve been woke up then. We cannot become numb or accepting of the numbers whether talking about covid19 or mbc deaths. Or racism. Thank you for reading and sharing.

  7. This was a really eye opening post and gave me a lot to think about. I’ve lost all my Grandparents but I’ve not lost anyone to COVID – nor have I actually known anyone with COVID. For me, I do feel very distant to the numbers flashing on our screen every day. It’s weird, now you’ve made me really think about it.

    1. Jenny, Thank you for reading and taking time to comment. We shouldn’t become numb to the numbers whether talking about mbc or covid deaths. We can’t let that happen. We just cannot.

  8. Nancy,
    Hope as we are too well aware is bit not static. It shifts as we move through our lives and our diseases. I hold out hope that people can stop the selfishness and wear a mask and stay put for a while so we can as a country get out if of our self imposed prison we find ourselves in. I hope we can see the numbers for what they are – losing an entire 1/2 a percent of our population to Covid. That’s staggering. But it’s the unseen numbers I worry about – those who cannot access health care because it’s not available right now and simply because there’s people who see wearing a mask as an imposition on their “rights.” I’m becoming more isolated and my access to a clinical trial put off until we can go to the hospital safely. How are my rights any less important? I am growing weary of not seeing friends, not enjoying the beautiful surroundings Craig and I moved to enjoy – even local hiking is limited because people refuse to practice social distancing for a short while in the grand scheme of things. My god, what’s become of a society that allows its leadership to squelch the numbers to make things seem less a mess than they are. And with all that said what can we read into the fact that people who join in Black Lives Matter protests aren’t required to wear masks? Are we socially allowing the virus to germinate in those we have racially denied access to the fullest of what our country has to offer by the color of their skin only to use the absolute rights and privileges to peacefully speak out so they may breathe in air that could kill? Why use tear gas and clubs and tasers when a virus can passively do the work of violent criminally negligent officers who are supposed to protect its citizens?

    I agree with you. Of course you know I do. I’m not leading so different a life than the usual when my immunity is low. But how can any of us be immune to such impudence and incomprehensible arrogance?

    Much love and peace in strange times.

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