The master asked his students, “What happens to a Buddha when he dies?”
The elder student answered, “Nothing. When a Buddha dies nothing remains.”
The master smiled and replied, “No, the truth remains.”
(from Sushila Blackman’s “Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die”).
A good friend of mine died a few weeks ago from COVID-19. I’ve had patients who died of COVID-19 but this was my first close friend who died from the pandemic. He was unvaccinated and thought the pandemic was a hoax. He believed that even if he was sometimes exposed to COVID-19 (he wore masks only when forced to), his religious faith would be enough to protect him from getting sick. My past few columns for this newspaper have been on the intersections of psychology and religion, but this topic took on a whole new meaning when I learned my friend, who was also a minister, had died.
Though we were both ministers, my friend and I had radically different religious philosophies. He thought science and religion were largely enemies; I regard science as a close ally of religion. Despite our differences we were friends and we had respectful discussions and debates. We weren’t likely to change each other’s minds about the relationship between science and religion, but we remained in conversation because relationships matter, and maintaining relationships with people who believe differently than we do matters now more than ever.
As of this writing, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, 671,098 Americans have died of COVID-19, though the actual number is much higher. It’s stunning to reflect on how many people have died from COVID-19. But it’s perhaps even more unmooring to realize that the number of pandemic deaths far exceeds the total amount of all American military combat and in-theater deaths for all the major wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Watson Institute of Brown University, 447,638 total American military deaths have occurred in World War I (1917-1918; 53,402 deaths), World War II (1941-1945; 291,557 deaths), the Korean war (1950-1953; 36,574 deaths), the Vietnam war (1964-1975; 58,220 deaths), Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1990-1991; 383 deaths), and the Global War on Terror (October, 2001 through August 2021, including Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq; 7,502 deaths).
To put that in perspective, over 223,460 more Americans have died from approximately 1.5 years of the COVID-19 pandemic than have died in over 40 years of American wars. We as a country actively seek to remember the military lives we’ve lost fighting in wars, but do we treat the deaths of the pandemic differently?
Statistics are cold numbers; and while important, don’t capture the reality of a tragedy. One of those 671,098 Americans who died of COVID-19 was my friend, a minister. He had a soft voice and a ready smile. He enjoyed meditation and contemplative prayer. My friend found his deepest spiritual insights derived from nature. When I learned my friend had died I was devastated. I never got a chance to say goodbye. Through compassionate, non-judgmental, science-informed discussions, I have managed to convince many of the people in my life, both patients and friends, to get vaccinated. Could I have convinced my friend to get vaccinated? Perhaps not. But I wish I had the chance to try. Now I will never know.
The Rev. Dr. David Zuniga
My friend has died. And several truths remain: my friend was one of 671,098 Americans who have died, and thousands more will continue to die from this pandemic. The vast majority of these deaths were and are preventable, if people would simply get vaccinated, wears masks and use other science-informed measures as advocated by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. But many Americans still cling to the delusion that COVID-19 is a hoax. I have also heard many people say “I’m done with COVID.” We can call the pandemic a hoax or declare ourselves done with it; but COVID-19 is not done with us.
Every one of the Americans who have died from the pandemic was a unique human being. So far, 4,675,173 worldwide have died of COVID-19. Every one of those people had a vast sea of family and friends, hopes and dreams. When someone dies, waves of grief reverberate far beyond the single person who died. Even after this pandemic ends, how long will the waves of grief from COVID-19 continue to reverberate?
It’s true that the pandemic has unfortunately been politicized by some politicians who know better but care more about appeasing a narrow section of their base than protecting their country from the worst pandemic of our lives. And people who refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks are contributing to the continuation of this pandemic. Millions more will suffer and die needlessly because of the delusions that are being spread by some loud, myopic voices.
As for myself, I don’t have anger in my heart anymore. I’m sad and I’m afraid, but I’m not angry. I just want people to live. I don’t care what your politics are. I don’t care who you voted for. I’m not mad at you for not getting vaccinated or wearing a mask. I just want you, and your family and friends, to live.
I’d like to survive the pandemic, too. I don’t want any more of my family members, friends or patients to die from a preventable disease. I don’t know if this column will influence a COVID-sceptic to take the life-saying actions of getting vaccinated and wearing a mask, but I write anyway. While we don’t know how or when the pandemic will end, it will end, as all pandemics eventually do. The question then is what really matters in the end? What do we want this pandemic period of our lives to look like? What do we stand for? How can we help?
My friend died of COVID-19. The truth is that thousands more will also suffer and die, but this doesn’t happen. I want to do everything I can to make this world kinder and more compassionate. Peacemaking is hard work, and it takes time. We have to take care of ourselves along the way so we can do the needed work of the world. It’s easy to feel discouraged. I too have known despair during the pandemic. The key is to bring yourself back to your spiritual path, again and again and again, so that we can continue to bring healing into this troubled world.
Dr. David Zuniga is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Austin, and he is also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest; his website is a free, interdisciplinary source of support: drdavidzuniga.com.