COVID Diaries: Sarah Jones
New York magazine|October 11 - 24, 2021
The 700,000 Death Toll An atheist stumbles toward a way to grieve.
Sarah Jones
WHEN I WAS IN COLLEGE, a friend died, and for weeks afterward, I thought I saw him everywhere. I didn’t suspect him of haunting me; it was more that people resembled him so strongly I believed, temporarily, that he was still alive. In September, when I learned another young friend had died in a tragic accident, I wondered if I’d see him, too. Human beings are uncomfortable with absence. We like to find patterns, fill in blanks. An individual death creates a void in reality, and almost two years of constant death has left most of us groping in the dark.

By the start of October, more than 700,000 people had died of covid-19 in the United States. A recent memorial on the National Mall takes this absence and renders it tangible. Better than an open letter, more sinew than a ghost. On the even grass before the Washington Monument, there were hundreds of thousands of white flags—a national surrender. I could plant a flag for my grandfather, who died of the virus nearly a year ago. But the gesture feels thin. Not that the memorial is a bad idea: It may provoke in the viewer feelings of sadness or regret or the emotion that arises in response to an absence, an emotion I cannot name but that is as close to fatigue as it is to grief or nostalgia. I don’t know what exactly I would want from a memorial—whether it’s catharsis or meaning or something else altogether. I thought several hundred times this year, Maybe I should go to church.

This will be news to my parents, my childhood pastors, basically everyone in my life. I haven’t gone near one as anything but a tourist in about a decade. My parents raised me to be a strict conservative Christian, blending fundamentalist and Evangelical tendencies. Conviction is my inheritance. And as an adult, I have preferred atheism to a generic spirituality because it mirrored the bright lines of my upbringing: God is or isn’t. The universe, I had decided, contained nothing but bright light and the vacuum of space. So why, after two years of plague, did I want to know if it hid anything else?

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NEW YORK MAGAZINEView All

Jonathan Franzen Thinks People Can Change

Even if his new book suggests it’s nearly impossible to make it stick.

10 mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

860 minutes with…Stephanie Grisham

In Kansas with Donald Trump’s former press secretary, who does not believe she will be redeemed.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

Bed in a Box

Just how much drama can you pack into a studio apartment?

2 mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

COVID Diaries: Sarah Jones

The 700,000 Death Toll An atheist stumbles toward a way to grieve.

6 mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

Nothing Like the Real Thing

Since when does a comedy special also need to be a documentary?

7 mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

Kumail Nanjiani's Feelings

The actor always wanted his own superhero transformation. Now he’s buff, a Marvel star, and struggling with how much of his new body is his own.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

Performance Review: Ben Affleck Plays Himself

Becoming a tabloid star gave the actor his best role ever.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

The Murders Down the Hall

393 POWELL STREET WAS A PEACEFUL HOME UNTIL RESIDENTS STARTED DYING IN BRUTAL, MYSTERIOUS WAYS.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

The POST-COVID, POST-MANHATTAN PLANS PLANS of the MOST MANHATTAN of RESTAURATEURS

KEITH McNALLY, TO GO

10+ mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

Under Her Skin

Julia Ducournau funneled years of fury, angst, and comedy into her Palme d’Or– winning, genre-smashing film Titane.

8 mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021