Zoom inter­view screen cap­ture of JM.

We have been in rel­a­tive iso­la­tion for a full cal­en­dar year. An entire year of pain, read­just­ment, fear, con­fu­sion, stress, trau­ma. A year of col­lec­tive sor­row and loss: loss of employ­ment, iden­ti­ty, child­care, edu­ca­tion, dat­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties, per­ceived con­trol over our present day and also over our futures.

And, of course, a year of enor­mous loss of life. More than half a mil­lion souls have died in the Unit­ed States alone, spark­ing a grief pan­dem­ic suf­fered by at least five mil­lion griev­ers from Covid-19 deaths alone (a the­o­ry called the bereave­ment mul­ti­pli­er sug­gests that for every death from this virus, an aver­age of nine peo­ple are direct­ly affect­ed by long-last­ing emo­tion­al, health and finan­cial con­se­quences). Then think about all the oth­er mil­lions of griev­ers mourn­ing deaths from any oth­er caus­es. Mil­lions of peo­ple who have had to say their good­byes through screens — if any were able to be said at all.

The iso­la­tion foist­ed upon griev­ers dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic has held them pris­on­er in many ways. Go-to in-per­son mourn­ing rites and rit­u­als have near­ly ground to a halt. Sit­ting in a room full of human com­fort as mourn­ers begin to nav­i­gate the deep well of per­son­al grief has been stolen away. As dev­as­tat­ing, also van­ished are the ongo­ing invi­ta­tions to share nar­ra­tives dur­ing these for­mal and impromp­tu gath­er­ings. Sto­ries of life, mem­o­ry, and, of course, final farewells.

Grief is best processed when it is acknowl­edged. Every­one has a sto­ry, and every­one deserves not only the chance — but also an earnest invi­ta­tion — to share it. When we feel we have wit­ness­es to our nar­ra­tives, we often feel our emo­tion­al bur­dens are ever-so-slight­ly-lighter. Because they are divid­ed up and car­ried by a com­mu­ni­ty that cares and sees us.

Between March 5 and 12, 2021, artist Tal Beery inter­viewed eight peo­ple from the Bal­ti­more area. Most of them are griev­ing Covid-19 deaths of loved ones, and all of them had to say good­bye or memo­ri­al­ize their loved ones under con­di­tions of social dis­tanc­ing. They were diverse in age, gen­der, race, and reli­gion. In total, more than 300 min­utes of inter­views were recorded. 

These sto­ries will be used for in the absence of a prop­er mourn­ing, an out­door instal­la­tion and online space. Audio excerpts from inter­views play on loop from speak­ers hid­den at the base of two large 15-foot dec­o­ra­tive arch­es on the facade of the Jew­ish Muse­um of Mary­land in the his­toric Jon­estown in Bal­ti­more City. The arch­es them­selves will frame large prints of Zoom back­ground images gath­ered from the record­ings. Thus, the arch­es, and the museum’s facade over­all, will offer pix­e­lat­ed por­tals into the homes of griev­ing neighbors.

Those who lis­ten to these sto­ries will sure­ly gain an enor­mous appre­ci­a­tion and empa­thy for the excru­ci­at­ing grief of these sur­vivors. But now con­sid­er the fact that one per­son absorbed all 300 min­utes of those sto­ries. What about his experience? 

When I view an instal­la­tion, I’m often left won­der­ing what the artist was real­ly going through out­side of what’s revealed on the lit­tle white descrip­tion cards. What were the ele­ments of the process that were the most mean­ing­ful and inspir­ing? What did they grap­ple with the most, need the most, doubt the most? And what was real­ly going on for them personally? 

So Tal and I did an exper­i­ment of our own: For weeks, we main­tained a What­sApp thread as he searched for inter­vie­wees, lis­tened to their sto­ries, and sift­ed through the record­ings. Through­out, I tried to pro­vide as much sup­port, assur­ance, ideas, feed­back, and real­ly, some­times, just a place for him to scream into the cos­mic void. You can read part of our exchange below. When you do, it may serve as a reminder that one nev­er knows what some­one else is tru­ly deal­ing with.

By invit­ing sur­vivors of Covid-19 vic­tims to share their sto­ries from this unfor­giv­ing plague, Tal has stepped in as an inte­gral, inti­mate wit­ness dur­ing one-on-one inter­views. By shar­ing those inter­views through a larg­er instal­la­tion, he is cre­at­ing a com­mu­ni­ty that sees and is impact­ed by these griev­ers and a site for col­lec­tive morn­ing and com­mu­nal care. In that sense, this project has lib­er­at­ed them from the inabil­i­ty to lean on old­er sup­port struc­tures and cre­at­ed new ways for us to hold each oth­er close. And I hope, that in some small part, our exchange helped Tal to feel a bit of care of his own.

This piece is a com­pan­ion lit­er­ary response to Tal Beery’s in the absence of a prop­er mourn­ing, pro­duced by LABA for Dwelling in a Time of Plagues.

It has been a ter­ri­ble year for good­byes: final Face­Time calls with loved ones in the hos­pi­tal; no hugs at the grave­side funer­al; memo­r­i­al ser­vices over Zoom. The mourn­ing rit­u­als we rely on for com­fort and sup­port as we grieve are not pos­si­ble right now. The loss and iso­la­tion so many of us are feel­ing is immense. in the absence of a prop­er mourn­ing is an out­door instal­la­tion and online space to gath­er tes­ti­mo­ni­als from Mary­land res­i­dents who have had to say good­bye or memo­ri­al­ize their loved ones under con­di­tions of social dis­tanc­ing. Beery’s in the absence of a prop­er mourn­ing asks us to con­front numer­ous dif­fi­cult ques­tions relat­ed to our con­nec­tions to one anoth­er and trans­forms the Jew­ish Muse­um of Maryland’s pub­lic-fac­ing facade into a site for col­lec­tive mourn­ing and com­mu­nal care. Learn more about this work here.

A Passover sup­ple­ment includ­ing ten authors and ten artists respond­ing to ten mod­ern plagues can be down­loaded here. Con­tribut­ing authors include Sarah Blake, Mar­ra B. Gad, Ayelet Gun­dar-Goshen, Let­ty Cot­tin Pogre­bin, Rebec­ca Sof­fer, Rab­bi Abby Stein, Darin Strauss, Michael Twit­ty, Rab­bi Dr. Shmu­ly Yan­klowitz, and Moriel Rothman-Zecher.

Dwelling in a Time of Plagues is a Jew­ish cre­ative response to real-world plagues of our time. Col­lec­tive­ly, the com­mis­sions in this con­stel­la­tion of art projects around North Amer­i­ca grap­ple with con­tem­po­rary crises: the glob­al pan­dem­ic, insti­tu­tion­al racism, xeno­pho­bia, ageism, forced iso­la­tion, and the cli­mate cri­sis. Dwelling is gen­er­ous­ly sup­port­ed by CANVAS.

Rebec­ca Sof­fer is the cofounder of Mod­ern Loss and coau­thor of the book Mod­ern Loss: Can­did Con­ver­sa­tion About Grief. Begin­ners Wel­come.” She is a for­mer pro­duc­er for the Peabody Award-win­ning The Col­bert Report,” and a for­mer Nation­al Net­work Coor­di­na­tor for Reboot. She is a Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism alum­na and con­tributes to books, mag­a­zines, and oth­er media. Rebec­ca lives in Man­hat­tan and the Berk­shires with her hus­band and two children.